The Battle of Kabul 1879
War: Second Afghan War.
Date: 23rd December 1879
Place: Kabul in Northern
Combatants: British and Indians against Afghan
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Kabul 1880 : The Afghan attack on the Sherpur Cantonment
Winner: The British and Indians.
Soldier of the 92nd Highlanders
Picture by W Skeoch Cumming.
and Indian 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
92nd Highlanders, later the Gordon Highlanders and now the
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)
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
The Road to Kabul - the Second Afghan War 1878 to 1881 by Brian
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)