The First Afghan War had been an absolute disaster for the British Army. Almost their entire contingent occupying Kabul was massacred in 1842; over 16,000 of them, including the women and children and their Indian camp followers.
But in 1878, the British returned once more, yet again to stop Russia securing a foothold in Afghanistan.
The Great Game
This state of affairs had arisen after the Tsar began courting the new Afghani ruler, Emir Sher Ali. Russia then bullied the emir into receiving its mission: on the one hand, making threats of supporting a rival for his throne if he resisted; while on the other, promising Russian aid and troops if he complied.
Meanwhile Lord Lytton, the Viceroy of India, was itching for a decisive fight with the Russians in Central Asia, writing home to London:
The prospect of war with Russia immensely excites, but so far as India is concerned, does not at all alarm me. If it is to be – better now than later. We are twice as strong as Russia in this part of the world and have much better bases for attack and defence.
The Secretary of State for India cautioned him when he continued in this aggressive manner, saying:
I think you listen too much to soldiers…if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe.
But Lytton was further incensed upon learning the Russians were being allowed into Kabul, when their own mission had been turned down twice before. That his frustration was boiling over, is apparent from his words:
It is evident that the Emir has been trifling with us…it must be made equally evident…that we will not be trifled with any longer…we have nothing further to say to the Emir on any subject.
The Viceroy soon presented Sher Ali with an ultimatum: ‘welcome’ a British mission into Kabul and apologise for his earlier discourtesy, or wear the consequences. When no reply was received by the appointed hour, the stage was set for confrontation.
Even though Sher Ali had sent a belated letter agreeing to the mission, it arrived too late; and besides, it did not contain the apology demanded.
The Second Afghan War erupts
Soon 35,000 British troops began marching on Kabul – the Second Afghan War had begun. But when the promised Russian support for Sher Ali didn’t materialise, the Afghanis capitulated without a fight and acceded to a British presence in their country.
Many senior military and political staff had grave misgivings about sending another mission to Kabul, recalling the fate met by the first one, but were overruled.
The mission was headed by Sir Louis Cavagnari; and it fell to General Frederick Roberts to host the group on the eve of their departure. He later summed up the mood:
After dinner I was asked to propose the health of Cavagnari and those with him, but somehow I did not feel equal to the task; I was so thoroughly depressed, and my mind was filled with such gloom and forebodings as to the fate of these fine fellows, that I could not utter a word.
Cavagnari and his small party reached the capital in late July 1879. All seemed to be going well, as his optimistic telegram to Calcutta on the 2nd of September indicated, ironically ending with those words: ‘All well’.
That would be the last time anything was heard from them.
Siege of the British Residency in Kabul
In piecing together what happened, it seems trouble first flared when a large body of returning Afghan troops arrived in Kabul. They were angry at being short-paid, and further infuriated on finding the British there.
Three mutinous regiments then demanded their outstanding wages from Cavagnari. When he refused, a skirmish erupted which quickly turned nasty.
Cavagnari and his men, comprising of two other staff, an officer and 75 soldiers, mounted a strong defence. During the ensuing 12-hour pitched battle, they accounted for more than 600 of their 2,000-odd attackers, before every last man was cut down.
News of their annihilation was received by stunned governments in London and Calcutta, and both were quick to seek retribution. A punitive force was hastily put together under the command of General Roberts.
On entering the capital, he immediately held a commission of enquiry and subsequently had almost 100 Afghans sentenced to death by hanging.
Inflamed by British presence on their home soil, the Afghan tribes rose in revolt. What followed was a classic fight between a small, well-disciplined military force up against a larger, uncoordinated and less well-armed, group of tribesmen.
Roberts had 20 pieces of field artillery, two Gatling machine guns and the latest breech-loading rifles; allowing his garrison of 6,500 to direct intense fire on their attackers, numbering more than 100,000.
The Battle for Kabul
The battle lasted from sunup to noon; after the Afghan attack broke, more than 3,000 tribesmen lay dead, compared to only a handful of their enemy.
It was a resounding British victory but, beyond preventing their own annihilation, what they had actually won was unclear. For a second time, Britain was in possession of Kabul, only this time without a clear view of how it was to rule, or even its next move.
What it needed was an exit strategy with a compliant ruler on the throne, to allow the army to promptly depart. This it achieved in short order; and Roberts, writing a few years later, would reflect:
. . . I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us.
Riaz Dean is an independent scholar and an engineer, who also holds an MBA degree. He has travelled extensively through many of the countries and routes in the Great Game. Mapping the Great Game: Explorers, Spies and Maps in 19th-Century Asia is his first book and will be published in November 2019, by Casemate Publishing