The Battle of Charasiab
War: Second Afghan War.
Date: 6th October 1879
Place: South of Kabul in Afghanistan.
Combatants: British and Indians against Afghan tribesmen.
Generals: Major General Frederick Roberts VC against Nek
Mohammed Khan, uncle of the Ameer and Governor of Kabul.
23rd Punjab Infantry
Size of the armies: 3,800 British and Indian troops
against 12,000 regular Afghan troops and tribesmen.
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.
12th Bengal Cavalry
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.
An elephant battery advances through the mountains
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.
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
Winner: The British and Indians.
British and Indian Regiments:
9th Lancers, now 9th/12th the Royal Lancers *
2 batteries RHA
2 mountain batteries
67th Foot, later the Hampshire Regiment and now the Princess of
Wales’s Royal Regiment. *
72nd Highlanders, later the Seaforth Highlanders and now the
92nd Highlanders, later the Gordon Highlanders and now the
12th Bengal Cavalry *
14th Bengal Cavalry (Murray’s Jat Lancers)*
5th Punjab Cavalry (25th Cavalry (FF) *
23rd Bengal Native Infantry (Pioneers) *
28th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis) *
5th Gurkhas *
5th Punjab Infantry, Punjab Frontier Force (Vaughan’s Rifles)*
*these regiments have Charasiah as a battle honour.
14th Bengal Cavalry (Murray's Jats)
Order of battle of the Kabul Field Force:
Cavalry Brigade: commanded by Brigadier-General Massey.
9th Lancers, now 9th/12th the Royal Lancers
12th Bengal Cavalry
14th Bengal Cavalry (Murray’s Jat Lancers)
5th Punjab Cavalry (25th Cavalry (FF)
Royal Artillery: commanded by Brigadier-General Gordon.
2 batteries RHA
2 mountain batteries
First Infantry Brigade: commanded by Brigadier-General Macpherson
Second Infantry Brigade: commanded by Brigadier-General Baker.
28th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis)
3rd Sikh Infantry (53rd Sikhs)
23rd Bengal Native Infantry (Pioneers)
29th Bengal Native Infantry (wing).
5th Punjab Infantry, Punjab Frontier Force.
Third Infantry Brigade: commanded by Brigadier-General Tytler VC.
11th Bengal Native Infantry (Rajputs)
13th Bengal Native Infantry (Rajputs)
20th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis)
Fourth Infantry Brigade: commanded by Brigadier-General Gordon.
2nd/8th Foot, King’s Own Regiment, now the King’s Own Royal Border
7th Bengal Native Infantry (Rajputs)
21st Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis)
29th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis) (wing)
The Third and Fourth Brigades garrisoned the lines of communication.
This was no easy task due to the frequent raids by the mountain
tribes, with many of the troops so employed seeing as much action,
if not more, than the troops with the main force.
The Battle of Charasiab (Charasiah)
On 3rd September 1879 Afghan troops from the Herati regiments
rioted in Kabul, demanding their arrears of pay. The rioters went on
to the Bala Hissar fortress where they stormed the residency
occupied by the British Military Mission under Sir Louis Cavignari
and a small escort of Guides Cavalry.
After a bitter fight the
Herati troops killed Cavignari and his British and Indian party,
thereby rekindling the Second Afghan War.
The first phase of the war ended four months earlier with the
signing of the Treaty of Gandamak in May 1879, the principle
provision of which required the Afghan Ameer, Yakoub Khan, to accept
Cavignari’s mission in Kabul.
A Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabi) Regiment manned by Sikhs
As the news of the deaths of Cavignari’s party reached India
British and Indian regiments gathered in the border stations for the
resumption of hostilities.
While in the first phase the British contented themselves with a
limited incursion into Afghanistan to bring the Ameer to
negotiations, the death of Cavignari resolve the government in
Calcutta for a full invasion of the country, the occupation of Kabul
and punitive action against the killers of Cavignari’s party.
This time the advance was to be by the Kurrum Valley alone, the
Khyber route being considered too difficult, with a strong invasion
in the South of Afghanistan to take Kandahar, the Southern Afghan
capital. Once Kabul was taken the Khyber Pass route would be opened
up to establish supply lines with India.
Transporting supplies through Afghanistan
The command of the northern attack on Kabul was given to Major
General Sir Frederick Roberts, the commander of the Kurrum Valley
Field Force in the first phase and the general considered to have
Roberts reached Ali Khel near the head of the Kurrum Pass on 6th
September 1879 to find the three brigades of the Kabul Field Force
largely assembled and ready to cross the Shutagaran Pass into
Central Afghan. Many of the mountain tribes were persuaded to desist
from attacking the British supply columns, a move made easier by the
Ramadan festival inhibiting tribal hostilities.
Yakoub Khan, finding that the murder of Cavignari made his
position as Ameer untenable, left Kabul and joined Roberts, enabling
the British to claim that the invasion was to support the Ameer’s
Lieutenant Hart, Royal Engineers, winning the Victoria Cross by
driving Afghan tribesmen away from a wounded Bengal Cavalry sowar
On 3rd October 1879 the Kabul Field Force began the final 36 mile
march to Kabul.
As in the first phase of the war the British and Indian force was
severely hampered by shortage of transport animals, camels and oxen.
Brigade Macpherson remained at the town of Safed Sang with a reserve
of ammunition and stores while Roberts and the main body continued
On the evening of 5th October 1879 Roberts reached Charasiab
village near the River Logar and encamped. To the north of the camp
by the river the route to Kabul lay through the Sang i Nawishta
defile. Brigadier MacGregor urged that a hill overlooking the defile
be immediately occupied, but this was not done. It was Roberts’
intention to remain in Charasiab while the transport animals
returned to Safed Sang and brought up the supplies left there with
the remaining troops.
As evening drew in Afghans could be seen gathering in the hills
flanking the Sang i Nawishta.
On the morning of 6th October 1879 a force comprising 23rd Bengal
Native Infantry and 92nd Highlanders with cavalry and 2 guns
advanced to the Sang i Nawishta with the task of making sure the
route along the Logar River was passable. But the Afghan force was
now moving forward and it could be seen that this was not a mass of
tribesmen but regular Afghan troops equipped with artillery, around
8,000 in number. The Afghans took position occupying three miles of
the crescent of hills.
Looking for Afghans
To further complicate Roberts’ position Afghan tribesmen were
gathering in his rear and cutting his links with Macpherson’s force.
Roberts resolved on immediate attack on the Afghan army blocking his
road to Kabul.
Brigadier Baker advanced with the force already deployed; 72nd
Highlanders, troops of 5th Gurkhas and 5th Punjab Infantry, cavalry
and 5 guns.
5th Punjab Cavalry
Baker’s force divided in two; Major White leading a contingent
from the 92nd and 23rd Pioneers into the defile, while Baker took
the remaining companies to attack the Afghan right.
White stormed the hill overlooking the defile only to find
himself threatened by overwhelming numbers of Afghans. In spite of
the threat White detached two companies of highlanders to assist
Baker’s troops stormed the hills forming the first line on the
Afghan right, driving the Afghans back to the second line of hills.
The 72nd, 5th Gurkhas and remaining companies of the 23rd Pioneers
renewed the attack on the second line. This attack was suddenly
supported by the two companies of 92nd Highlanders, sent with great
perspicacity by White to launch an assault in support of Baker on
the left flank of the Afghans.
The Afghan centre and right, under attack by Baker and in flank
by the 92nd, crumbled and fled, taking the troops facing White with
them, pressed as they were by White’s advance up the defile. White’s
cavalry captured 6 guns.
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)
Casualties: British and Indian casualties were 78. Afghan casualties
were around 500
Charasiab opened the last section of road to Kabul. Moving forward,
Roberts concentrated his army before taking over the city on 9th
92nd (Gordon) Highlanders in full dress
The battle at Charasiab was a critical one. As on several occasions
in the Second Afghan War the margin between success and disastrous
failure was thin. The courage and resource of the troops and their
officers won the battle against great odds. Roberts showed his
remarkable tactical skill and ability to delegate, a confidence that
was entirely justified in the case of vigorous and resourceful
subordinate officers like White and Baker.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
- George White, a major in the 92nd Highlanders, showed his
tactical skill in the battle, earning the Victoria Cross for his
conduct at Charasiab and the next year at Kandahar. This was the
same White who, after 20 further years service, in 1899 permitted
his army so disastrously to be shut up in Ladysmith at the start of
the Second Boer War.
- Charasiab is given as Charasiah in the battle honours list. This
is clearly a misspelling.
The Road to Kabul; the Second Afghan War 1878 to 1881 by Brian
Recent British Battles by Grant.