In the late 1870s, the British faced a Russian incursion into Afghanistan, which posed a threat to the Northwest Frontier of India. This was not a new issue: Russia’s efforts to infiltrate Afghanistan diplomatically dated from the 1830s and had already led to the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-42. That conflict had produced the disastrous retreat from Kabul, in which 16,500 British soldiers, Indian sepoys and camp followers had perished. The British had recovered, however, and had ultimately emerged victorious. Two decades of uneasy peace followed.
But, in the 1860s, the Russians renewed their expansion into Central Asia, as was reflected in the establishment of the new province of Turkestan in 1867 and the annexation of Samarkand (today in Uzbekistan) in 1868. In response, the British stepped up their intelligence activities, leading to the most intense phase of the `Great Game’ of spying and covert manoeuvring in the region. With the advent of the more pro-imperial Conservative government in 1874, British policy became more aggressive, and the preservation of Afghanistan as a buffer zone, even if it entailed military action, was seen as essential. The new policy was enthusiastically embraced by the new viceroy of India, Lord Lytton, who took office in 1876 and swiftly moved to strengthen Britain’s position along the Northwest Frontier. This in turn led to an intensification of Russian activity in Afghanistan.
The first steps along the road to war had thus been taken, and all that was required now was an excuse for fighting actually to begin. In 1878, the Afghans refused to allow a British diplomatic mission on its way to Kabul to cross the Khyber Pass. Lytton demanded an apology from Amir Sher Ali, who suddenly found himself in the impossible position of offending either the British or the Russians no matter what he did. He thus did nothing, and in November, the British massed their forces on the Afghan border in preparation for an invasion. But, as had been the case in the late 1830s, the conquest of Afghanistan proved to be more easily imagined than accomplished. The limited resources that the British were able to deploy and the difficulties of the rugged terrain combined to make military operations extremely challenging. The Afghans could not hope to match the British in firepower, but the tribal warriors known as ghazis were motivated by a religious fervour that made them formidable foes. Against inexperienced troops, their screams and swinging of their tulwars, or curved swords, could be devastating.
From the perspective of the British commanders, however, the Afghans did not pose a serious threat. Much like their counterparts in Zululand, they went to war flush with confidence, and in the initial stages of the war combined sloppy reconnaissance with aggressive frontal attacks in a manner that courted disaster. Desiring a quick end to the war, the British were extremely ruthless towards the Afghan population, and floggings, hostage-taking and executions were common occurrences as they marched deeper into the country. As the British neared Kabul, a panicked Sher Ali fled, leaving power in the hands of his son Yakub Khan. Given little choice, the latter signed a peace treaty that granted the British considerable sway over Afghan affairs. But this apparently swift and tidy conclusion to the war proved a delusion. In July 1879, the new British permanent envoy to Kabul, Sir Louis Cavagnari, and his eighty-person retinue were murdered by Afghan soldiers who opposed the terms of the treaty. This shocking event demanded retribution, and it was not long in coming. British forces were once again sent into Afghanistan; the instructions given by Lytton to their commander, Major General Frederick Sleigh Roberts, conveyed the bloody-mindedness that now governed their actions:
You cannot stop to pick and choose ringleaders. Every soldier of the Herati regiments is ipso facto guilty and so is every civilian be he priest, or layman, mullah or peasant who joined the mob of assassins. To satisfy the conventions of English sentiment it will probably be necessary to inflict death only in execution of the verdict of some sort of judicial authority. But any such authority should be of the roughest and readiest kind such as a drumhead Court Martial. It is not justice in the ordinary sense, but retribution that you have to administer on reaching Kabul . . . Your object should be to strike terror, and strike it swiftly and deeply.
Roberts was in full accord with this policy, telling Yakub Khan, who desperately (and probably truthfully) pleaded his innocence, that `the great British nation would not rest satisfied unless a British army marched to Kabul and there assisted Your Highness to inflict punishment as so terrible and dastardly an act deserves’.
After capturing Kabul in October 1879, Roberts immediately began rounding up dozens of suspects in the murder of the Cavagnari mission and executing them; by mid-November, nearly a hundred men had been hanged. This orgy of retribution discomfited some British observers. Colonel Sir Charles MacGregor, who was in charge of the tribunals that assessed the guilt or innocence of the suspects, complained: `I do not think that men who merely fought against us without being concerned in Cavagnari’s business should be killed but Bobs will kill them all.’ Outside Kabul, meanwhile, a number of surrounding villages were burned and the inhabitants forced to pay exorbitant fines. Roberts’s political advisor, Sir Mortimer Durand, recorded in his diary: `I think this sort of thing is wrong and impolitic. It causes deep and lasting resentment and it will not quiet the country.’ Indeed, Afghan mullahs were issuing increasingly vociferous denunciations of the `infidels’, and in December 1879 a ring of Afghan forces, comprising as many as 100,000 men, tightened around Kabul, awakening memories of the previous British occupation four decades earlier. Roberts, however, had learned the lessons of that disaster, and when the attack came on 22 December, he was able to repel it.
Now that the Afghans had made it clear that they had not been pacified by Roberts’s draconian tactics, the British determined that nothing less than the complete conquest and dismemberment of the country would do. Lieutenant General Sir Donald Stewart was dispatched to Kabul with a fresh contingent of troops from the Bengal Army to assume control of the situation. In its first action, Stewart’s force won a hard-fought victory at Ahmed Khel, but the bulk of the Afghan soldiers escaped. In the south of the country, meanwhile, Afghan strength was growing under the leadership of Ayub Khan, Yakub Khan’s brother and the ruler of Herat. By the summer of 1880, he had 25,000 troops under his command and had gained enough confidence to advance on the British garrison at Kandahar. In response, 2,700 men marched out under Brigadier General George Burrows to meet the threat.
Burrows understood that he was in a precarious situation. He was significantly outnumbered, and in order to meet Ayub’s oncoming army, he would have to cross a barren desert that lacked supplies, forage and water. Manoeuvring to cut him off from Kandahar, Ayub crossed the Helmand River and took up a position near the village of Maiwand. Burrows now decided that the best option was to march to Maiwand and take on Ayub before his forces could fully assemble. His officers were confident in their ability to handle Ayub’s army, despite its superior numbers. `We thought that . . . we should give them a good drubbing wherever we met them,’ wrote Major George Crawford Hogg of the Poona Horse. But what neither he nor Burrows knew was that Ayub had already amassed enough men to outnumber the British by more than ten to one.
By 27 July, the British were tired, hungry and thirsty from their long, slow trek across the desert in the blistering summer heat, which by midday reached temperatures of over 50ºC. At 10 a. m., they had been marching for three-and-a-half hours when the first signs of the enemy were detected. Hogg was sent forward to conduct a reconnaissance, but due to the hilly terrain and a haze that hung over the sand that morning he saw only scattered groups of cavalry and infantry, not Ayub’s full force. Burrows ordered an advance, but when the first units crossed one of several nullahs, or ravines, that scarred the plain, they could see around twenty thousand infantry and four thousand cavalry ranged in front of them. `They were drawn up in thousands and thousands,’ Hogg recounted, `covering four or five miles of ground, and to be compared only to ants swarming out of their nests.’ To sound the retreat now would have been disastrous; `there was nothing for it but to fight it out in the open plain without any protection.’
Seeing that he had caught the British in the open, Ayub ordered his cavalry to surround them, while his artillery began launching a devastating barrage at their exposed position. `The enemy who had kept perfect silence for more than half an hour,’ recalled Captain Mosley Mayne of the Bombay Light Cavalry, `suddenly opened fire, battery after battery, till we could count about 30 guns . . . There was not a vestige of cover.’ The ghazis, meanwhile, began creeping forward through the nullahs, with the intention of completing the enveloping movement that the cavalry had begun. Mayne recalled:
crowds of white-coated Ghazies . . . streamed into the enclosures and village to our right. The firing then became general, the enemy gradually advancing and at this time developing flanking movements to both flanks, until we were . . . in a sort of horse-shoe, and completely out-flanked on both sides. Sharp firing from the baggage in our rear told that the baggage-guard too were engaged . . . The fire both from their artillery and small arms was very hot indeed. I was hit twice though only slightly wounded, and my horses kept dropping and men too.
The British had nowhere to go: their superior small-arms firepower could hold off the ghazis for a time, but their badly outgunned artillery – they had only twelve guns to Ayub’s thirtyfour – could not stop the constant rain of what Hogg described as `round shot after round shot, shell after shell and every conceivable missile’ from being `hurled at our dazed heads hour after hour’. Hogg saw `horses shot[,] poor brutes, with all their bowels hanging out, with broken legs and broken backs, some spinning around, some trying to gallop away from the hellish scene’. His men, too, were suffering badly, `their legs shot off, torn by fragments of shell, struck by bullets here, there and everywhere . . . wretched wounded men lying, imploring for help, unable to move, and, yet, not a man spare to carry them off ‘.
Under such strain, the infantry could not hold out indefinitely. The British left was the weakest point in the line: its guns had been moved to the centre to bolster the defences there, and the 30th Native Infantry, known as `Jacob’s Rifles’, had, after three hours of continuous firing, lost a fifth of its men, while the survivors were running low on ammunition. They were exhausted, starving and parched with thirst, and their Martini-Henry rifles were beginning to overheat and jam. At around 2 p. m., Mayne `heard shouts and loud exclamations’ from behind him and turned to see a `confused mass of gun teams, infantry and ghazies all mixed together and our brigade in an utter rout’. The 30th had broken and run, followed by the 1st Bombay Grenadiers. In their panic, they careened into the third and last infantry regiment, the 66th (Berkshire) Foot, who had been rock steady up to this point but now also broke. Although Hogg recalled that the `European officers did all they could to rally their men’, it `was of no avail and the retrograde movement could not be stopped’. Burrows ordered a cavalry charge, but it failed. As Hogg ruefully observed, `the battle was of course then clean lost’, as `the infantry legged it as fast as they could from the ferocious ghazis’. The wounded were abandoned and `hacked to pieces as they lay . . . on the ground’.
The fleeing British were hotly pursued by Afghan cavalry. Kandahar, the nearest safe haven, was 50 miles (80 km) away, across rugged terrain inhabited by hostile villagers who were unlikely to treat the British with mercy. Many men were so exhausted that they simply lay down and waited to die. The 66th Foot, however, managed to retire in formation, which meant that they stopped periodically and fired at the Afghans as they retreated. As they fell back into the village of Khig at around 3 p. m., approximately two hundred survivors made the first of several stands in its walled gardens, in which they lost around sixty men. The 140 survivors fell back further into the village, where they made a second stand in which they lost a further eighty or so men. Now numbering only fifty-six, they retreated into another walled garden. Here, they made their last stand, lining the interior of the walls and shooting at the Afghans as they entered. But the enemy’s numbers were too great, and they were overwhelmed and killed to a man. An Afghan officer later described their final moments:
Surrounded by the whole of the Afghan army, they fought on until only eleven men were left, inflicting enormous loss on their enemy. These men charged out of the garden, and died with their faces to the foe, fighting to the death. Such was the nature of the charge, and the grandeur of their bearing, that although the whole of the ghazis were assembled around them, no one dared to approach to cut them down. Thus, standing in the open, firing steadily and truly, every shot telling, surrounded by thousands, these officers and men died; and it was not until the last man was shot down that the ghazis dared advance upon them. The conduct of those men was the admiration of all that witnessed it.
This was a bright spot in an otherwise disastrous battle. Out of Burrows’s force of 2,700 men, twenty-one officers and 948 men were killed and another 169 wounded. (Only those wounded who could save themselves survived.) Out of its 516 officers and men, the 66th Foot lost 286, or 62 per cent. This was not quite as high as Isandlwana’s 75 per cent death rate, but it was still horrific. The response from Britain’s military commanders, politicians and public echoed that to Isandlwana the previous year: redemption, retribution and remembrance. The soldiers who had fought were exonerated of blame, as it was argued that Burrows (who had survived) had been sent out with far too small a force. Once he located the enemy, he had only two choices: to turn around and go back to Kandahar, which would have rendered his expedition pointless and almost certainly engendered accusations of cowardice, or to continue forward and fight. As gunner Francis Naylor recalled: `What was to be done? What road can you take when there is only one to use? We were like a gigantic creature which can only travel one way, and that is, ahead. There was only one thing to do, and one thing only, and that was to get the business through.’
After Maiwand, full authority over military operations in Afghanistan was restored to Roberts, who immediately dispatched two divisions to relieve Kandahar, which was now under severe pressure from Ayub’s forces. They reached the demoralized garrison on 31 August; the speed of their march became the most famous moment in Roberts’s long career. He now had nearly fifteen thousand men (3,800 British and eleven thousand sepoys and Afghans), and with characteristic impatience decided to attack immediately. In the ensuing Battle of Kandahar, British forces routed the Afghans, losing only thirty-seven men to Ayub’s 1,200. Having made their point, the British evacuated Afghanistan, leaving it in the hands of a new emir, Abdur Rahman, who would be responsible for maintaining his country as a buffer state against Russian encroachment. He was given a lavish annual subsidy to ensure that his loyalty did not waver.
As had happened with Isandlwana, efforts were made to erase the trauma of a devastating defeat by emphasizing the heroism of the men who fought. And as had occurred with the last stand of the 24th Foot, the last stand of the 66th Foot became a key moment in the battle. In 1882, the scene was painted by Frank Feller, who depicted a weary knot of men, led by a stoical officer with his arm in a sling, attempting to hold off a huge mass of Afghans. Even more romanticized was Harry Payne’s version of the 66th’s last stand, painted in 1892, in which the soldier in the centre stands with his left leg thrust defiantly forward as he reaches in his ammunition pouch for another round; to his right, a comrade who has just been shot in the chest slumps back. But also as with Isandlwana, there existed unpleasant reminders of the reality of the battle. Shortly after Maiwand, Major Henry John Nuthall of the Bengal Staff Corps painted a watercolour of the ground on which the 66th had made its last stand, still strewn with dead horses and with a mass grave in the centre.
In July 1881, the 66th Foot was amalgamated with the 49th Princess Charlotte of Wales’s (Hertfordshire) Regiment of Foot. The 2nd Battalion of the new regiment, called the Princess Charlotte of Wales’s (Berkshire) Regiment, was assigned to guard duty at Osborne House. In August, Queen Victoria personally presented five men from the former 66th with the Distinguished Conduct Medals they had won at Maiwand. Afterwards, she requested to meet Bobbie, the small white dog who served as the regiment’s mascot and who had been wounded in the battle. Maiwand also became the focus of a large-scale war memorial that was, unusually for the time, not funded by the armed services or the government, but by the public. In 1881, the money was requested for a memorial to be erected in Reading in Berkshire, where the 66th Foot was based. It flowed in rapidly, with the officers of the 66th leading the way with a contribution of £125. The total of £1,088 was, in fact, sufficient for two memorials: a window in St Mary’s Church, which was installed in 1882, and a monument in Forbury Gardens. For the latter, George Blackall Simonds, a noted artist and the son of a local brewery owner, was selected as the sculptor. Simonds proposed that the memorial take the form of a massive cast-iron lion on a plinth, on which the names of the 328 men who had died would be inscribed; in this regard the memorial was similar to the earlier monument honouring the 24th Foot’s charge at Chillianwallah in the grounds of Chelsea Royal Hospital in London. The memorial was unveiled in 1886; today, it serves as the symbol of the city in which it is located, as is confirmed by its appearance on the badge of Reading Football Club.
Perhaps the most prominent way in which Maiwand lived on, however, was in literature. Rudyard Kipling based a short story, `The Drums of the Fore and Aft’ (1888), and a poem, `That Day’ (1894), on the battle. William McGonagall’s poem `The Last Berkshire Eleven’ (1899) also celebrated Maiwand. The battle’s most famous literary appearance, however, occurs in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1881). In the opening sentences, the reader is informed that Dr Watson was seriously wounded in the `fatal battle of Maiwand’. Later, in what is perhaps the most famous introduction in literary history, Sherlock Holmes’s first utterance to Watson is: `How are you? You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive?’ Later, Holmes tells him how he knew:
The train of reasoning ran: `Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an Army doctor then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardships and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English Army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’
Holmes’s deduction is based on the fact that Watson has been wounded, confirming Maiwand’s cultural resonance in Britain as a violent, scarring event.