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The Battle of Kabul 1879

War: Second Afghan War.

Date: 23rd December 1879

Place: Kabul in Northern Afghanistan.

Combatants: British and Indians against Afghan tribesmen.

Bengal Cavalry

Generals: Major General Sir Frederick Roberts VC against Mohammed Jan.

Size of the armies: 7,000 British and Indian troops against a varying number of Afghan tribesmen and regular soldiers probably around 50,000 at the largest.

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

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 and Punjab cavalry in the battle in the Chardeh Valley
The British and Punjab cavalry in the battle in the Chardeh Valley
 before the Afghan attack on the Sherpur cantonment at Kabul

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.

Royal Horse Artillery on exercise in England

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.

Kabul 1880 : The Afghan attack on the Sherpur Cantonment

Winner: The British and Indians.

Soldier of the 92nd Highlanders in Afghanistan
Soldier of the 92nd Highlanders
in Afghanistan.
Picture by W Skeoch Cumming.

British and Indian Regiments:
British Regiments:
9th Lancers, now the 9/12th Royal Lancers. *
67th Foot, later the Hampshire Regiment and now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. *
72nd Highlanders, later the Seaforth Highlanders and now the Highlanders. *
92nd Highlanders, later the Gordon Highlanders and now the Highlanders. *

Indian Regiments:
12th Cavalry
14th Murray’s Lancers
Queen’s Own Corps of Guides
5th Cavalry, Punjab Frontier Force
1st PWO Sappers and Miners
23rd Bengal Native Infantry (Pioneers)
28th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis)
3rd Sikh Infantry
5th Punjabis (Vaughan’s Rifles)
2nd Gurkhas
4th Gurkhas
5th Gurkhas PFF.

British fortifications at Kabul

The murder of Britain’s emissary in Kabul, Sir Louis Cavignari, and his escort of Queen’s Own Guides under Lieutenant Walter Hamilton on 3rd September 1879 provoked the second phase of the Second Afghan War. Major General Sir Frederick Roberts VC led the Kabul Field Force over the Shutargardan Pass into Central Afghanistan and, defeating the Afghan Army at Charasiab on 6th October 1879, occupied Kabul.

The British and Indian troops took over the Sherpur military cantonment north of Kabul, built by their predecessors in 1839 during the occupation of the city in the First Afghan War, rebuilt the accommodation and finally in early December 1839 moved into the vast compound.

The Sappers and Miners bastion at Sherpur cantonment, Kabul

Communications with India were established along the Khyber Pass route, with substantial numbers of troops deployed along its length to keep the mountain tribes at bay.

Roberts restored the Ameer, Yakoub Khan, to his throne, and rounded up the soldiers of the mutinous Afghan Herati regiments and others reported as having stormed the British residency in the Bala Hissar and killed Cavignari and his Guides escort. Numbers were hanged creating considerable unrest in the population and the surrounding country.

Towards the end of November 1879 reports reached the British of gatherings of considerable numbers of Afghan tribesmen in the area to the North of Kabul under the command of Mohammed Jan, who had declared Musa Jan to be the new Ameer of Afghanistan in place of Yakoub Khan, widely seen as a puppet of the British.

Bengal Lancers
Bengal Lancers

Roberts sent two forces into the area of the Chardeh Plain to the North of the city, under Brigadier-Generals Baker and Macpherson, intending to catch the Afghans in a pincer movement. After several days of hard fighting in and around the Chardeh Plain, culminating on 11th December 1879 in a series of near disastrous engagements, the two forces managed to pull back to the Sherpur cantonment, lucky that they had escaped from the enveloping mass of Afghan tribesmen. In one incident the Horse Artillery lost several guns in a ravine, although later they were recovered.

An aggressive leader, Robert’s view was that the Afghans should always be attacked, almost regardless of their strength. The lack of effective intelligence left Roberts in ignorance of the scale of the Afghan uprising. On this occasion the overwhelming Afghan numbers came close to inflicting overwhelming defeat on the British and Indian force.

While some work had been carried on the defences of the Sherpur cantonment, much remained to be done. With the threat from Mohammed Jan increasing day by day, tens of thousands of Afghans flocking to join the uprising, the British and Indian troops toiled to complete the defences.

The Sherpur cantonment, a large rectangular encampment to the North of Kabul, had been built by the British and Indian army in the First Afghan War within a five mile outer perimeter. The mile and a half long south wall was complete. The west wall was near completion. The northern side of the cantonment rested on the Bimaru Heights, where in 1841 so much skirmishing had taken place, and relied entirely on the heights themselves for its fortification. The east wall reached to the area of Bimaru Village and petered out.

The assault by the Afghan tribesmen on the Sherpur cantonment

Mud towers had been built along the heights and the village fortified. At one point a ditch was dug and filled with captured Afghan guns and wire entanglements. An extensive telegraph system provided communications across the cantonment.

Robert’s artillery comprised twelve field guns, eight mountain guns and two Gatling guns with a small number of usable Afghan guns, which were distributed around the perimeter.

Gatling gun crew on the Sherpur fortifications

The 72nd Highlanders held part of the south and west walls.
Major General Hills held the rest of the west wall and half the heights with 5th Punjab Infantry, 3rd Sikhs and 5th Gurkhas.
The 23rd Pioneers held the eastern end of the heights.
The Guides held the north eastern corner around Bimaru village.
Companies from the 92nd Highlanders, 67th Foot, 28th Bengal Native Infantry and a company of Bengal Sappers and Miners held the east wall and the end of the south wall.

Roberts’ headquarters was in the west wall.
Mohammed Jan’s hordes of tribesmen hovered around the cantonment but lacked the training and equipment to conduct a siege.

On 17th December 1879 the cavalry moved out of the main gate and patrolled around the walls. Provoked by this display of bravado, the Afghans gathered on the Asmai and Siah Sang Heights to the south west and south east, where they were bombarded by the artillery.

On the evening of 18th December 1879 it snowed hard causing the Afghans to disperse to Kabul for the night. Over the next few days the British and Indians undertook a sortie from the cantonments to capture a neighbouring fort but otherwise awaited events.

On 21st December 1879 Brigadier General Charles Gough, commanding the 1st Brigade of Bright’s 2nd Division, and already advancing towards Kabul, received at Jagdalak a message from Roberts ordering him to march for Sherpur with his brigade without delay, a move he promptly began.

It would appear that Gough’s march towards Kabul finally provoked the mass attack on the cantonment that the British and Indians both hoped for and feared. Hoped for because a decisive repulse of the assault would break up the mercurial Afghan army and feared because the Afghans might penetrate the defences, in which case it would be all up with the heavily outnumbered garrison.

The northern end of the Sherpore fortifications,
showing the ditch filled with Afghan guns

On 22nd December 1879 Roberts received intelligence that the attack would be launched the next day, information that proved correct. Afghans gathered from all over the North East of the country for the battle that was expected to destroy the invading army of British and Indians, just as their predecessors had been destroyed in 1842.

The attack was signaled before dawn by an enormous bonfire lit on the Asmai Heights by a militant cleric, dramatically lighting up the area of the cantonment.
50,000 Afghans, headed by white clothed Ghazis, fanatical religious leaders, rushed the cantonment fortifications. The garrison guns illuminated the area with star shells as the defending infantry poured volleys into the attacking tribesmen.

By dawn the attack was in full flood against the west, south and east walls, with the emphasis on the east side and Bimaru village. Only in the north east corner did the Afghans make any lodgment. The hard pressed Guides were reinforced by companies of Sikhs from the neighbouring heights which had not been attacked.

After reaching a peak of ferocity, between 10am and 11am the attack generally slackened, the Afghans returning to the assault many times, but with diminishing enthusiasm.

At around 11am Roberts sent a force of guns and cavalry through the gap in the Bimaru Heights to open a bombardment on the Afghans attacking the village from their right flank. Under this fire the attackers withdrew.

At around midday the British and Indian cavalry issued from the cantonment and began the work of dispersing the remaining Afghan forces and pursuing the retreating tribesmen, while the infantry cleared the villages in the area of the cantonment.

No quarter was given to Afghans found in the area with weapons.
On the morning of the 24th December 1879 Roberts prepared to eject the Afghans from Kabul city when he received news that Mohammed Jan’s enormous army had completely dispersed.

In spite of the pursuit by the British and Indian cavalry Mohammed Jan and his entourage escaped to Ghuznee.

British and Indian casualties were 33. General Roberts estimated that the Afghan casualties, almost all killed, were 3,000.

The British and Indian governments, relieved at the success of the battle, now required the enormous expense of the Afghan War to be brought to an end. Over the following 6 months a new Ameer was found in Abdurrahman and preparations made to withdraw the army to India. In the spring of 1880 Major General Stewart would march from Kandahar and take Ghuznee and the combined forces would withdraw by the Khyber route. Kandahar would be created as a separate state and a British/Indian garrison retained.
However the British and Indian armies still had three hard battles left to fight, with the outbreak of serious trouble in Southern Afghanistan.

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)