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The Battle of Futtehabad

War: Second Afghan War

Date: 2nd April 1879

Place: South West of Jellalabad in North Eastern Afghanistan.

Combatants: British and Indian troops against Khugiani and other Afghan tribesmen.

The Battle of Futtehabad, Second Afghan War, 2nd April 1879: picture by Harry Payne
The Battle of Futtehabad, Second Afghan War, 2nd April 1879: picture by Harry Payne

Generals: Brigadier General Gough against unknown tribal leaders.
Size of the armies: 1,000 British and Indian troops against 5,000 Khugiani 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.

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.

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.

10th Hussar Officers
Officers of the 10th Hussars at Jellalabad in 1879

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.


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 Indian force.

British Regiments:
British Regiments:
Royal Horse Artillery.
10th Hussars: now the King’s Royal Hussars.
17th HM Foot, later the Leicestershire Regiment and now the Royal Anglian Regiment.
HM Rifle Brigade now the Royal Green Jackets.

Indian Regiments:
Bombay Hazara Mountain Battery.
11th Bengal Lancers
Queen’s Own Guides Cavalry
20th Bengal Native Infantry (Brownlow’s Punjabis)
27th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis)
45th Bengal Native Infantry (Rattray’s Sikhs)
4th Gurkha Regiment
Bengal Sappers and Miners.

Map of the Battle of Futtehbad Map of the Battle of Futtehbad

Account:
The battle at Futtehabad was a classic example of late Victorian colonial warfare; a small, but well armed and disciplined force led with courage and resource against fanatical tribesmen, enraged at the incursions into their lands by foreigners.

The battle was also symptomatic of the difficulties faced by the three British/Indian Field Forces invading Afghanistan in the Second Afghan War: the Peshawar Valley Field Force, the Kurrum Field Force and the South Afghanistan Field Force. The field forces captured fixed positions along the routes of incursion with relative ease; the most determined resistance coming from the tribesmen raiding communications links to India. The hard lesson was that Afghan tribesmen never stop attacking an invader.

Following the successful battle at Ali Masjid at the head of the Khyber Pass in November 1878, the Peshawar Valley Field Force, commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Sam Browne, advanced to the Afghan town of Jellalabad on the Kabul River. There the invasion of Afghanistan halted over the winter while the British gathered their resources for the final advance on Kabul or the Ameer to sued for peace.

The substantial army in Jellalabad and its supply line suffered frequent attack by the Afghan tribes in the area; the tribesmen, at the best of time troublesome subjects to the Ameer of Afghanistan, seizing every opportunity to attack the foreign invaders.

At the end of March 1879 General Browne received intelligence that a force of some 1,500 Afghan tribesmen was present in the area known as the Laghman, on the north bank of the Kabul River to the West of Jellalabad, intent on inflaming local tribes against the British and Indian force.

Simultaneously the Kugiani tribe was reported to be assembling in the area of Futtehabad to the South West of Jellalabad. It seemed the two threats were coordinated.


10th Hussars on exercise in England

General Browne sent out three forces from Jellalabad: the first comprising a squadron of 10th Hussars and a squadron of 11th Bengal Cavalry to cross the Kabul River to the East of Jellalabad and march west to surprise the Afghans in the Laghman: the second force, under Brigadier General Macpherson, to march west along the south bank of the river and cut off the southward retreat of the Afghans from Laghman.

The third force under Brigadier General Gough would deal with the Kugianis at Futtehabad.

Macpherson’s force and the cavalry marched out of Jellalabad on 31st March 1979. The cavalry route across the Kabul River was by a ford; about a mile across via an island, its path far from obvious. In the second section of the river the squadron of 10th Hussars lost its way and floundered into fast deep water. 47 officers and men of the squadron of 75 all ranks were swept away and drowned, a substantial loss. A second squadron of the regiment was sent out from Jellalabad and the force continued on its march, only to find when it reached the Laghman that the Afghan force had disappeared.


Crossing the Kabul River at Jellelabad

Brigadier General Gough’s force marched out in the early hours of 1st April 1879; comprising 2 squadrons of 10th Hussars and Guide’s Cavalry, 400 men of HM 17th Foot, 300 men each of the 27th and 45th Bengal Native Infantry and 4 guns of the Royal Horse Artillery.

Soon after dawn on 1st April 1879 a cavalry patrol reported a gathering of 5,000 hostile Kugiani tribesmen at the village of Khuja to the South of Futtehabad. Gough left a force of infantry to protect his supply column and advanced to the attack, notwithstanding that his force was outnumbered 5 to 1.

Gough found the Kugiani tribesmen entrenched behind an extensive sanger wall at the top of a long sloping escarpment, each flank of the approach blocked by an impassable mountain torrent.

The immutable doctrine of warfare against native forces in India was that the British/Indian force must attack whatever the odds. If they showed weakness every tribe in the area would rise up.

Gough sent forward his small cavalry force with the Royal Horse Artillery guns. Gunfire was opened on the Afghans at 1,600 yards and again at 1,200 yards. The force then withdrew. The effect on the Kugianis was as Gough had planned: they emerged from the fortified position and pursued the cavalry and guns, hurrying past the waiting infantry positioned on their right flank. A heavy fire was opened on the tribesmen and the cavalry turned and charged the Afghan flank driving the tribesmen in headlong retreat.


Guides Cavalry led by Lieutenant Walter Hamilton VC.

In the course of the charge Major Wigram Battye, commanding the Guides, was fatally shot in the thigh and chest. He passed command to Lieutenant Walter Hamilton. The Guides with the 10th Hussars pressed home the charge, pursuing the Kugianis back to the sanger wall and beyond. Hamilton rescued a dismounted Guides trooper from a group of tribesmen and for his part in the charge won the Victoria Cross.


The Death of Major Wigram Battye at the head of the Guides Cavalry and 10th Hussars

The mounted soldiers were greatly impressed by the courage of the tribesmen who when surrounded fought to the death with whatever weapons they carried, in many cases just a knife.

Following the battle Gough’s brigade was jointed by the rest of the 2nd Brigade under Brigadier General Tytler and the Kugiani town of Khuja was burnt, ending the threat from the tribe for the moment.
The force returned to Jellalabad.

Casualties:
British and Indian casualties were 6 killed and 40 wounded. The Khugianis suffered 300 dead and around 900 wounded.

The statue in Dublin commemorating
the death of Lieutenant Walter Hamilton
VC of the Queen's Own Guides in the
attack on the British Legation in Kabul

Follow-up:
A number of tribesmen were made prisoner. Initially it was the requirement of the political officers with the British/Indian force that these prisoners be shot. The military officers objected. In the event a group of 5 mullahs was executed.

Regimental anecdotes and traditions:

References:
The Road to Kabul; the Second Afghan War 1878 to 1881 by Brian Robson.
Recent British Battles by Grant.

 

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)