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The Regiments in Afghanistan 1839-42, 1878-80, and 1919

By John Downham

A Lancashire Infantry Museum Narrative History

© Lancs Inf Museum & Lt Col E J Downham MBE BA DL

‘The Afghans are the best umpires in the world, because they seldom allow a tactical error to go unpunished.’

(Military Report on Afghanistan, General Staff India, 1914)

Candahar 1842, Ghuznee1842, Cabool 1842, Ali Masjid, Ahmed Khel, Afghanistan 1878-80, Afghanistan 1919

(A selection from the Battle Honours of The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment)

The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment not only carried more Afghan Battle Honours than any other regiment – seven in all – but, through its antecedent corps, could claim to be the only British regiment to have fought in all three of Britain’s previous Afghan Wars, those of 1839-1842, 1878-1880, and 1919, and, what is more, emerged victorious on each and every occasion.

AFGHANISTAN 1839 – 1842

The first British intervention in Afghanistan was to counter the eastward expansion of imperial Russia, which was supporting the usurper Dost Mohammed and threatened British India. In 1839 an Anglo-Indian expedition marched the twelve hundred miles to Kabul, restored the legitimate ruler, Shah Shuja, to his throne, supported him with subsidies, and occupied the capital and other strategic places, including Kandahar.

As on each subsequent occasion, the British interest was to achieve some stability in Afghanistan, not for its own sake but to prevent its turbulence spilling over the North West Frontier into India. Consequently, each intervention was intended to be of limited duration, though, as we have rediscovered in more recent times, a satisfactory exit strategy from that chronically anarchic failed state was invariably elusive and seldom entirely satisfactory.

The 40th Regiment had been in India for some years when, in 1839, it was moved north to support the invasion of Afghanistan, capturing Karachi and campaigning in upper Sindh. The Regiment, commanded by George Hibbert, a veteran of Waterloo, appears to have been in remarkably good form at this time. Their Chaplain, Allen, recorded in his diary that: ‘The officers were most kindly attentive to the comforts and real interests of the men – the men, as a natural consequence, attached to their officers – and a general good feeling prevailed from the highest to the lowest.’

On 23rd October 1841 the 40th Regiment marched into Kandahar from Quetta. The situation in Afghanistan was now deteriorating rapidly, with a general insurrection against Shah Shuja and his British backers, and in December the British envoy in Kabul was murdered and dismembered. The position of the small Anglo-Indian garrison of Kabul, one British and four Indian regiments, became untenable, and in January 1842, having been assured of safe conduct back to India, the force set out for the Khyber Pass. As might have been expected, the Afghans did not honour their agreement, and the withdrawing force was treacherously attacked in the wintry mountain passes and annihilated in one of the two major disasters to befall British arms in that country (the other being Maiwand in 1880). Only one survivor reached Jellalabad, the remainder being killed or taken captive. It is this early debacle that has coloured British perceptions of Afghanistan ever since, though in truth only one under-strength Regiment of British Infantry, the 44th, was involved, the remainder being Indian units and camp followers.

To this day, Lady Butler's epic portrayal of the arrival of Assistant Surgeon William Dryden, the only one of the 16,500 men and women who set out from Kabul to make it through to Jellalabad, adorns many a British Army Mess. His horse dropped dead the moment it passed through the city gates.

‘Candahar’

The insurgent Afghans also advanced on Kandahar, which was held by two British regiments (the 40th and 41st) and twelve Indian regiments under Major-General William Nott (an ancestor, incidentally, of Sir John Nott, Defence Secretary at the time of the Falklands war). On 12th January he moved out with some 3,500 men to meet 18,000 enemy and routed them with ease; the 40th, who led the British attack, suffering only ten wounded. Severe winter weather precluded further offensive operations until early March, when Nott mounted a sortie to attack the enemy’s headquarters, some 30-40 miles away. Contact was soon made with the Afghan cavalry, but they refused battle, and on Nott’s return to Kandahar the reason for this was obvious.

The Afghans had taken advantage of the army’s absence to attack its base on March 10th, attempting to fire the gates of the city. They succeeded in burning down the Herat Gate and made a determined assault there, but the gallant defenders – notably including 94 of the 40thsick and wounded, who turned out to fight in their hospital clothing – beat them off from behind improvised barricades of flour sacks. A simultaneous attack on the Citadel Gate, which would have been fatal for the little garrison, was thwarted by Quartermaster Philips of the 40th, who, happening to look outside the gate before securing it for the night, removed the faggots laid there before they could be set alight.

The Citadel at Kandahar. The Gate from which Quartermaster Phillips removed the faggots is on the right. This photograph was taken some 30 years after the fight.

‘Ghuznee’

On 19th May the 40th marched with a brigade to the relief of the beleaguered Indian garrison of Kelat-i-Ghilzai, returning to Kandahar on successful completion of this operation. Nott was now ordered to evacuate Kandahar and return to India, but instead of slipping out by the back door, direct to Quetta, he elected to leave by the front door, by way of Kabul and the Khyber, with his best troops, including the 40th. The force set out on 9th August, carrying provisions for two months, marching and skirmishing all the way.

At the fort of Goain, on the 30th, Nott fought a short but spirited action with over twelve thousand Afghans, who were again completely defeated with the loss of all their guns. The action commenced with an artillery duel, and Captain Martin Bladen Neill of the 40th was amused at ‘the graceful but involuntary obeisance made along the whole of our line, as each succeeding shot from the enemy’s guns seemed almost to graze our heads.’ Padre Allen was surprised at the levity of the Regiment as they stood under fire: ‘Jokes and laughter resounded on all sides, and the general feeling appeared to be rather that of a set of schoolboys at a game of snowballs, than of men whose lives were in instant peril. An Irish sergeant of the 40th had his head grazed by a spent ball; it confused him for the moment, and he exclaimed “Och! Somebody take my piece! I’m kilt – I’m kilt – I’m kilt!” As they were leading him off, he looked over his shoulder, and cried out, “Faith, boys, and I don’t think I’m kilt entirely yet!” His second thought called forth shouts of laughter.’

The enemy attempted a move round the flank, but the British infantry, covered by the light companies and guns, advanced to meet them. ‘As we neared the enemy,’ wrote Neil, ‘we formed a widely-extended line, and continued to move steadily on; we were received with shouts and many volleys from the matchlock-men, but, as usual, their fire was ill-directed, Having gained the bottom of the hill, on the crest of which the opposing army had made their stand, a loud hurrah burst from our line; this was succeeded by an irresistible British charge, and the enemy, succumbing to the superiority of the bayonet over the sword and shield, broke and fled.’ British casualties were again light, including thirteen of the 40th wounded.

On September 6th the mighty fortress of Ghazni (Ghuznee) was captured after a brief siege – during which the Officer’s Mess tent of the 40th was effectively engaged (at breakfast-time!) by the sixty-four pounder brass gun known as Jabar Jhang – and 327 captive sepoys were released from slavery.

Kabul

On the 14th, at Beni Badam, Nott found his line of advance blocked by some twelve thousand enemy occupying a succession of strong positions, but Nott ordered up Captain ‘Blanco’ White of the 40th with the light companies of the force to clear the heights, which he did ‘with his usual zeal and ability’, while Lieutenant Wakefield took the Grenadier Company of the 40th to clear a detached hill occupied by the enemy, which they did ‘with much spirit.’ The 40th had one drummer and a private killed and a subaltern and three privates wounded in this action, while Captain White was mentioned in despatches ‘for the gallantry displayed by him and the companies under his command in ascending the mountains and driving the enemy from their positions’, and was later awarded a CB.

On the 18th, after an arduous and unsupported march of over three hundred miles through hostile country, Nott and his little army reached Kabul. It had been a remarkable feat of arms. They found the British flag already flying over the upper citadel of the Balla Hissar, for General Pollock had arrived a few days earlier with another relief force, which had crossed the Punjab and come up the Khyber Pass.

With the prisoners released, on 12th October the British columns left Kabul and began a fighting withdrawal through the Khurd Kabul and Khyber passes, where the evidence of the earlier disaster was only too apparent. In the former, wrote Neall, ‘the pass was literally strewed with the horrid remains of men – skeletons they could not be called, for in many the features were so hideously perfect, that little difficulty was experienced in recognising . . . those who had been known in life.’ The columns were constantly under actual or threatened attack, and the 40th were as frequently in action. On the 6th November the rearguard emerged from the Khyber Pass, and the Grenadier Company of the 40th had the honour of being among the last of ‘The Avenging Army of Afghanistan’ to quit that country.

AFGHANISTAN 1878-1880

Relations with Afghanistan remained uneasy, and the Russians continued their expansion to the south, where they were contained by the Crimean War of 1854-55, and the east, where their empire touched the Afghan frontier. Then in 1878 a Russian mission was received in Kabul, while a balancing British mission was stopped at the fort of Ali Masjid in the Khyber Pass. The growing Russian influence posed a direct threat to British India, and war again became inevitable.

Ali Masjid

On 21st November 1878 Lieutenant-General Sir Sam Browne (originator of the belt) attacked and captured Ali Masjid, the key to the Khyber, with a force including the 81st Regiment – recruited in Lancashire since 1873 and shortly to be re-titled 2nd Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. The Regiment suffered no casualties in this action, in which it took part in a frontal attack to engage the Afghan defenders while other troops made a wide flanking move to turn them out of this strong position. The way was now open to Kabul, and the Afghan leader fled to Russia. A British envoy, Major Cavagnari, was established in Kabul, and the British force, including the 81st, began to withdraw.

Sartorius VC

Following the route taken by the 40th nearly forty years before, the 59th had reached Kandahar on 9th January 1879 and joined a field force based there under Lieutenant-General Stewart. Later that month they marched on the fortress of Kelat-i-Ghilzai, which surrendered without opposition.

When news of the massacre at Kabul of Cavagnari and his escort reached Kandahar, one wing of the 59th was on the march back to Quetta, and the other away from camp. They were soon recalled, and on 23rd September marched again for Kelat-i-Ghilzai, where two companies were left in garrison while the remainder moved towards Ghazni. On the 24th October the 59th were in action at Shahjui, where Captain Sartorius led a party to storm a rocky and almost inaccessible hill, which could be approached only in single file up a zig-zag path. Lieutenant Irwin of the 59th, who was present and sketched the incident, wrote the following account:

Captain Euston Sartorious leads his men against the tribesmen on the summit of Shahjui hill. This is an eye-witness depiction by Lt J F Irwin, who was Sartorious's Lieutenant.

‘Captain Sartorius ordered his men to fix bayonets, and to clamber up. The hill was very steep, and when they got to within a few feet of the top the Afghans sprang up with a yell, and, sword in hand, slashing right and left, simply jumped down upon our fellows. For a few moments all was confusion, friend and foe falling down together, but it was speedily all over. We had gained the hill, and the standards on it, not one of the enemy having escaped. We lost one man, and Captain Sartorius was wounded in both hands. The fanatics were splendid, though ferocious-looking scoundrels, and fought like fiends, having evidently mad up their minds to die, and to do as much damage as possible before doing so.’

Ahmed Khel

In the spring of 1880 the 59th Regiment was with a mainly Indian Army force under General Stewart, moving north from Kandahar to Ghazni. They had marched 150 miles and were some 23 miles south of Ghazni when, on19th April 1880, they encountered an Afghan army estimated at twelve to fifteen thousand infantry and one thousand cavalry. The enemy, who had been withdrawing before the British force, had taken up a position on a ridge, and Stewart prepared to attack. The leading brigade began to deploy behind a low rise in the ground, with the 59th on the right, 2nd Sikhs in the centre and 3rd Gurkhas on the left. The 19th Bengal Lancers were on the far left, while artillery batteries, with their infantry escorts, were positioned well forward.

The battle line of the 59th Regiment at Ahmed Kel. Another eye-witness depiction by Lt J F Irwin of the 59th, who was there.

The British guns then began their preparatory fire, but at 9 o’clock, before the infantry attack could be developed the mass of Afghans on the crest-line suddenly surged forward in a wild charge, drums beating, standards flying and swords waving. Three to four thousand fanatical Ghazis in three waves swept down on the infantry and guns, stretching out on both flanks and seeming to envelop them. Some carried rifles or matchlocks, others were armed with tulwars, knives and pistols as they bounded across the five to six hundred yards to come to close quarters with the British line. ‘Their bravery was magnificent’, wrote Captain Elias of the 59th, ‘and the fury of their onset tried the nerves of our troops for a few minutes. Most of them were big men with long white robes flowing in the wind, right arms with swords or other weapons extended, and trying to guard their bodies (against Martini-Henry bullets!) with shields.’

At the same time a large body of enemy horse emerged from two ravines and charged the 19th Bengal Lancers, who fell back in some confusion, disordering the 3rd Gurkhas and smashing into Stewart’s infantry reserves, ammunition mules and headquarters staff as they careered towards the right rear. Fortunately, the Gurkhas at once recovered and, forming company rallying squares, held firm as friend and foe rode round them. Meanwhile the guns fired case and shrapnel at close range into the swarming Afghans, but neither this nor the volleys of the infantry could stop the rush of the Ghazis.

On the right flank, the horse artillery and their infantry escort were soon compelled to fall back, and the 59th were ordered to throw back their right flank to check the oncoming rush. This movement occasioned momentary confusion in the ranks, for the Ghazis were now very close, but the 59th hurriedly formed a new firing line and the Lancashire soldiers settled down to fire steady and continuous volleys from their breech-loading rifles. For some minutes the situation remained critical, for the Afghan foot-soldiers assailed the infantry line on three sides, while their cavalry were within twenty yards of Stewart and his staff, who drew their swords. Lieutenant-Colonel Lawson of the 59th, and the Adjutant, both prominent on horseback, were wounded. At this moment a fierce wind arose, enveloping the entire field of battle in dense clouds of dust and obscuring the charging Ghazis as they closed with the British line. Hand-to-hand fighting followed, as the enemy fought with reckless bravery, but at length superior discipline and withering firepower began to tell. Mowed down in their hundreds by the volleys of the 59th, Sikhs and Gurkhas, the enemy slackened their attack and began to retire, followed by well-directed artillery fire. Once the fanatical onslaught was stemmed, the Afghan defeat rapidly became a rout, and at 10 o’clock the buglers sounded the ‘cease fire’.

More than a thousand dead lay in front of the British position, and the Quartermaster is said to have counted six hundred around the 59th, while at least two thousand more are believed to have been wounded. British losses totalled 17 killed and 124 wounded, of whom the 59th had one private killed and two officers, one sergeant, a drummer and eight privates wounded, one mortally. Second-Lieutenant Twynam was recommended for a VC for going out to rescue a wounded soldier, but had to be content with a mention in despatches. (See also ‘The Battle of Ahmed Kel’ below)

The 59th Foot with their Colours under the walls of Ghuznee (Ghazni) after the battle of Ahmed Khel. These Colours, the last ever to be carried by any British regiment on a victorious field, are now displayed in the Sergeants’ Mess of the 1st Battalion, Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. This is another painting by Lt Irwin, by then the Regiment's Adjutant, whose exceptional talents as an artist have left us an unusually well-illustrated record of the campaign.

Following Ahmed Khel, Stewart advanced to Ghazni, and on 23rd April the 59th were again in action at Urzoo, where they took part in a brigade attack to clear four thousand Afghans from a series of walled enclosures. These were assaulted one after the other in fine style, and the tribesmen fled leaving three to four hundred casualties. The 59th suffered no loss. This was the Regiment’s last major engagement of the campaign, and after a few months in Kabul they marched through the Khyber Pass, bound for home.

AFGHANISTAN 1919

In May 1919, the ill-advised Afghan government of King Amanullah declared war and attempted to invade British India. 1st Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment (the old 40th) were at that time a resident battalion in India, where their principal task had been to maintain watch and ward on the North West Frontier with Afghanistan. Based at Quetta since 1914, their tour had not been without incident, for in 1918 they had fought a short campaign against the Marri tribe of Baluchistan, marching for some six hundred miles before defeating them in pitched battle. This was a typical mountain warfare operation, characterised by careful picqetting of the line of march by day (physically demanding, thirsty and potentially dangerous work) and watchful perimeter defence by night.

On the outbreak of the 3rd Afghan War, the South Lancashires were moved up to garrison Jamrud, the important fort guarding the exit from the Khyber Pass. Later the Battalion took part in operations against Pathan bands in the Kajuri Plain and the Bazar Valley. Then on the 15th July it was ordered forward to occupy Ali Masjid, key to the Khyber. There the South Lancashires stayed until the end of October, during which time they took part in several operations against dissident tribesmen, the most important of which was the destruction of the Afridi stronghold of Chora. On completion of this mission, the Battalion had the task of acting as rearguard to the column on its withdrawal, always one of the most difficult phases of mountain warfare, but the South Lancashires were thoroughly versed in the tactics of this form of warfare and completed the operation without untoward incident.

 

‘The Battle of Ahmed Khel’

The following lines were written by a bandsman of the 59th Regiment shortly after the battle and were originally printed on the regimental press, then at Dargai.

 

It was on the 19th of April we marched to Ahmed Khel

And there we met the enemy and quickly made them feel

That we were British soldiers bent on vengeance for the dead

And fought for dear old England for which Sir Louis bled.

 

The sun was shining brightly, ’twas a warm and sunny day,

But on the Afghan hill tops, the wintry snow still lay.

The lark was singing sweetly, and carolling in the sky

When we went forth to meet the foe, resolved to do or die.

 

We had marched but six miles on our way when first we met the foe

Assembled in their thousands on the hills and vales below.

We opened fire upon them, but they stood defiant and still,

Until six thousand of their tribes came rushing down the hill.

 

Along our line the wild mass charged, and fought in wild despair.

Their banners glistened in the sun, their wild cries rent the air.

They charged the gallant 59th, but that brave devoted band

Poured on them such a hell of fire, nought living could withstand.

Ahmed Khel was fought and won, for the enemy now had fled.

As we rode o’er the battlefield, two thousand there lay dead,

Cold and stiff in the arms of death, and others in fearful pain.

Such scenes of bloodshed may God grant we ne’er shall see again.

Our men fought well, let history tell, how our shot and shell did fly

And how the 59th stood firm, resolved to do or die.

Then praise be to those soldier lads whose hearts were firm as steel

When they fought for Queen and Country on the plains of Ahmed Khel.