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The 2nd Afghan War 1878-80

A Lancashire Infantry Museum Narrative History

© Lancashire Infantry Museum & Dominic Medley

By Dominic Medley, whose ancestor Colour Serjeant Patrick Mountain fought with the 59th at Ahmed Kel


With the 59th at the Battle of Ahmed Kel


The 59th at the Battle of Ahmed Kel, by Lieutenant J F Irwin of the Regiment, who was there.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880 was a further card in the “Great Game,” played on the Indian sub-continent between the expanding Russian and British Empires.

Afghanistan was always the buffer zone between Russia and Britain. The “Game” had already resulted in the disastrous first Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-1842, when 16,000 British and Empire soldiers and camp followers were massacred by Afghan tribes at the village of Gandamack on the road to Jalalabad. Dr. William Brydon was the sole survivor to make it through to the garrison of Jalalabad where he was able to tell the tale of the retreat from Kabul.


Remnants of an Army. In the famous painting by Lady Butler, Dr William Brydon, the sole survivor of the Retreat from Kabul, reaches Jalalabad.

The British base in Kabul during Britain’s 21st Century involvement in Afghanistan, Camp Souter, was named after Captain Thomas Souter of the 44th Regiment, who wrapped the regimental colours around his waist to save them from the attacking Afghans on January 13 1842, as the last few British soldiers fought to the end at Gandamack.

Nearly 40 years later, the British hoped a friendly Amir enthroned in Kabul would keep the Russians out. But the Amir, Sher Ali Khan, didn’t accept British influence easily and allowed a Russian mission into Kabul. The British were refused entry to the country at the Khyber Pass and so invaded instead, thus beginning the second of an eventual three British Afghan wars.

The legendary and fictional 19th Century James Bond-style character, Harry Flashman, made his name in this war (the first book in the Flashman series introduces us to him during his early years in the army). With the money he made from the looting of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny in 1858 he bought Gandamack Lodge, in the Leicestershire countryside in England, named in memory of the British defeat at Gandamack and his own escape from that battle.

The 59th Regiment, which just over two years later would become the 1st Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, arrived in Kandahar for garrison duty after marching from India in January 1879. By August, the British were expecting to leave the country, and some troops had already started marching south from Kandahar.  But then, on 3 September, the British resident in Kabul, Major Sir Louis Napoleon Cavagnari, and his staff were murdered by mutinous Afghan troops. Cavagnari had negotiated the Treaty of Gandamack on May 26 1879 after the death of the Amir, Sher Ali Khan, with his son and successor Yakub Khan.


The Camp of the 59th at Kandahar in 1879. By Lieut. J F Irwin of the Regiment

The massacre in Kabul changed everything. The British army leaving Kandahar was turned around. On October 24 1879 an action at Shah-Jui was fought, which included two companies of the 59th Foot. Following this battle Captain Euston Henry Sartorius of the 59th received the Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest award for military valour) for leading a small number of men up a hill against an enemy position.

On March 31 1880 the 59th Foot, with 436 rifles, and other regiments, under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Donald Stewart, left Kandahar to march to Kabul (314 miles away) to meet up with Britain’s most famous soldier, Major General Sir Frederick Roberts VC. Roberts’ troops had been attacked in Kabul in December 1879 in the Sherpur cantonment but the attack was beaten off and a period of peace followed. Stewart’s orders were to break up any Afghan forces gathering around Ghazni.

By the morning of April 19 1880 General Stewart’s force had reached Ahmed Khel, 20 miles west of Ghazni on the road to Kabul.

Some 7,200 British and Indian troops formed up against an estimated 15,000 Afghan tribesmen, at about 9 o’clock in the morning, for a battle that was to last for an hour. By the end the casualties of the British force were 17 killed and 124 wounded, four died of their wounds. Afghan casualties were estimated at more than 1000 dead and perhaps another 1000 wounded.


The Battle of Ahmed Kel, 19 April 1880

The 59th was in the thick of it. The Regiment was placed on the right with the 2nd Sikhs in the centre and the 3rd Gurkhas on the left. Shortly after the British artillery began firing the Afghan cavalry attacked. In his official dispatch on the battle written on May 5 1880 General Stewart wrote: “The onslaught of fanatic swordsmen was at this time so rapid, and was pushed with such desperation, that during the few minutes which followed it became necessary to place every man of the reserve in the firing line.” He added: “Taking into consideration the character of the attack, led as it was by swarms of fanatics determined to sacrifice their own lives, the conduct of the troops engaged was beyond praise.”

The charge by the 3,000-4,000 Afghan tribesmen on horseback threw the British lines in confusion for a while. Captain Elias of the 59th wrote: “Their bravery was magnificent 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 with shields.”

The Times on April 26 1880 wrote of the Afghan cavalry charge: “…before our attack could be developed a desperate charge of over 3,000 Ghazis was made along the face of the whole line; and enveloping both flanks. The Ghazis, of whom many were mounted, were magnificently led by three men with standards, and charged right into the British troops.”

The 59th was caught changing formation and without bayonets fixed. But the infantry regiments managed to get solid volley fire going which drove back the tribesmen. At the end of the battle the Quartermaster is said to have counted 600 dead around the 59th’ s position alone, indicating the strength of the British volley fire.

According to the British Army Casualty List of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the 59th had two privates killed, 207 James Carten and 1299 George Rutherford. Two officers, Lieutenant-Colonel James Lawson and Lieutenant and Adjutant Stephen Watson were wounded. Eight privates, a sergeant and Drummer 838 James Butler, were injured and one of the privates died later. 373 Sergeant Frederick Thompson was severely wounded.

A 21-year-old Second-Lieutenant, Henry Twynam of the 59th Foot, was recommended for a Victoria Cross by his brother officers for his bravery during the battle. His obituary in The Times in 1913 relates the account of how he tried to save a Sergeant-Major and in the process killed half a dozen Ghazi tribesmen: “That night the Regiment sat him on the wall of a native well, and marched past him with torches.”  Twynam didn’t get a VC but was Mentioned in Dispatches by General Stewart: “The gallant behaviour of Sub-Lieutenant H.M. Twynam, 59th Foot, is brought specially to notice.”

A bandsman of the 59th Foot wrote the following lines shortly after the battle for the regimental press:

It was on 19th of April that 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.

The Battle of Ahmed Khel was the 59th Foot’s last major engagement of the campaign. It was also the last time the regiment fought in traditional close order around its colours.


The 59th with their Colours at Ghaznee after the battle

In her Historical Guide to Afghanistan, Nancy Hatch Dupree writes of the battle: “Only with the greatest difficulty were the British able to win the day and proceed to Ghazni.”

On April 24 1880 The Times wrote of the Battle of Ahmed Khel: “It is perhaps premature to speculate as to what the political results of this success will be, but it is clear that it will vastly improve the military situation. Our enemies in Afghanistan (and their name is legion) have no stronghold to which they can retire on discomfiture. The whole line of country between Candahar and Cabul has been traversed by our troops, and the inhabitants have thus had an opportunity of seeing for themselves our real strength, and not learning it by hearsay. In addition to this they have learnt that our strength is tempered with justice and mercy, and that, though we appear as invaders, their persons and their homes are inviolate as long as they do not act treacherously towards us.”

The Battle of Ahmed Khel also has links to the British imperialist author and poet Rudyard Kipling, who wrote many poems and short stories on Afghanistan: “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, and the wimmin come out to cut up what remains, jest roll to your rifle an’ blow out your brains, an’ go to your Gawd like a sowjer!”

Kipling also wrote a famous short story, “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”, which is generally agreed to be based on the disastrous British defeat at Maiwand in July 1880 and the victory of Ahmed Khel. As the tribesmen drive back the British forces, as at Ahmed Khel they drove back the 59th Foot for a time, Kipling writes: “The foe began to shout with a great shouting, and a mass – a black mass – detached itself from the main body, and rolled over the ground at horrid speed. It was composed of, perhaps, three hundred men, who would shout and fire and slash if the rush of their fifty comrades who were determined to die carried home. The fifty were Ghazis, half maddened with drugs and wholly mad with religious fanaticism. When they rushed the British fire ceased, and in the lull the order was given to close ranks and meet them with bayonet.”

After the battle General Stewart marched his force onto Ghazni and then on to Kabul, arriving in July to meet up with General Roberts and increase the Kabul garrison to a strength of about 18,000 men. The war seemed over and with the throne vacant, Abdur Rahman became the new Amir and ruled until 1901. The British were now prepared to leave Afghanistan again.

But on July 27 1880, with Ayub Khan claiming the throne, a huge force of 25,000 Afghans defeated a British force of 2,500 at Maiwand, near Kandahar. More than 1,100 British troops were killed or wounded for 7,000 Afghans. 1,600 men made it back to Kandahar to tell the tale where they were later besieged by Ayub Khan. At the Battle of Maiwand the Afghan heroine Malalai played a key part. When it looked as if the Afghans were losing, she took off her veil and shouted: “Young love! If you do not fall in the Battle of Maiwand, by God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!”

When news of the defeat arrived in Kabul General Roberts was outraged. He decided to march 10,000 men and 11,000 animals the 314 miles to Kandahar. On August 8 the famous Kabul to Kandahar march began. Roberts’ force arrived on August 31, after marching 14 miles a day, with only one rest day out of 24. The next day the British fought and defeated the Afghans, thus ending the war. The march became famous and a special medal, the Kabul-Kandahar Bronze Star, was struck.

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