The Battle of Kandahar, 1 September 1880, was the last major conflict of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The battle in southern Afghanistan was fought between the British forces under command of General Roberts and the Afghan forces led by Ayub Khan, ended with a decisive British victory, inflicting nearly 3,000 casualties in total.
In May 1879, after the death of the Amir Sher Ali Khan, Sir Louis Cavagnari negotiated and signed the Treaty of Gandamak with his successor, Mohammad Yaqub Khan. The treaty obliged the Afghans to admit a British resident governor at Kabul; a position Cavagnari himself took up in July. However on the 3 September, Cavagnari and the other European members of the mission were massacred in a sudden rising of Afghan rebel troops.
After Yakub Khan had been dethroned and exiled for suspected collusion in the murder of Cavagnari, feelers were put out for two replacement candidates: his younger brother, Ayub Khan the Governor of Herat, and his nephew, Abdur Rahman Khan. However, in May 1880, a new British Liberal government recalled the Viceroy of India, Lord Lytton from India and replaced him with Lord Ripon who had instructions to bring all troops out of Afghanistan. These plans for the evacuation were disrupted by Ayub Khan, who after stirring up anti-British feeling, had sallied out of Herat in early June with 10,000 followers. A force of 1,500 British and Indian troops, together with Afghan levies, was sent to intercept this force.
The British, commanded by Brigadier George Burrows, met Ayub Khan at Maiwand, on 27 July 1880. However, many of the Indian troops in British service were new, inadequately trained recruits, and crumpled under pressure; the Afghan levies had already switched sides, unwilling to fight against their countrymen. Despite a heroic last stand by the 66th Regiment, and inflicting 2,500 casualties on his enemy, General Burrows was defeated by a determined adversary.
After the disastrous defeat at Maiwand, the remnants of General Burrows’ battle-wearied army began the 45 mile retreat to the city of Kandahar. Armed local irregulars, exhaustion and thirst contributed to the breakdown of the column’s discipline, and were it not for Captain Slade’s rear guard action, far fewer would have made it to the refuge of the city:
All over the wide expanse of desert are to be seen men in twos and threes retreating. Camels have thrown their loads; sick men, almost naked, are astride donkeys, mules and camels; the bearers have thrown down their dhoolies (palanquins) and left the wounded to their fate. The guns and carriages are crowded with the helpless wounded suffering the tortures of the damned; horses are limping along with ugly wounds and men are pressing eagerly to the rear in the hope of finding water. Hordes of irregular horsemen are to be seen amongst our baggage animals, relentlessly cutting our men down and looting. A few alone remain with Brigadier Burrows to try to turn the rout into an orderly retreat. – Captain Slade.
Of the 1,500(approx) British and Indian troops at Maiwand, a little over 960 succumbed in either the battle or the ensuing retreat. Only 161 of the wounded reached the citadel of Kandahar.
The siege of Kandahar
The remnants of the straggling column reached Kandahar on the 28th raising the garrison numbers to 4360 — the Afghan population of 12,000 were compelled to leave. With the abandonment of the cantonments, the whole garrison withdrew behind the walls of the fortified city and organised preparations for its defence. These defences included improving and facilitating communications along the city's walls, plugging breaches, constructing gun platforms and the laying of wire obstacles outside the walls to entangle their foe. The Afghans determined to harass and hinder the defenders’ preparations throughout.
On 8 August, Ayub Khan, the victor at Maiwand, opened fire on the citadel from Picquet hill north west of the city; a few days later other guns volleyed forth from the villages of Deh Khoja and Deh Khati on the east and south. An attempt to neutralise the village of Deh Khoja, led by Brigadier General Brooke on the 16th, proved unsuccessful. During the extrication, both Brigadier General Brooke and Captain Cruickshank fell, adding to the casualty total of over 100.
The Maiwand disaster had altered military plans for the evacuation of the Kabul garrison from Afghanistan.
...the present question is the relief of Kandahar and the defeat of Ayub. I have a fine force ready for the work, and Bobs would go in command of it. – General Donald Stewart, Kabul.
The 'Bobs' in question, General Roberts, would personally lead a division from Kabul to rectify the recent calamity and relieve the besieged city of Kandahar. It was also arranged that General Phayre would march from Quetta in northern India with the same intention, and that General Stewart would proceed to evacuate the rest of the garrison back to India as originally planned. The Viceroy of Afghanistan was informed that Roberts would march on the 8 August with the expectation of reaching Kandahar by 2 September.
Of the 10,000 men under Robert’s command, a little over 2800 were Europeans. Because of the unforgiving terrain of the Afghan country, and the necessity of speed, all troops were ordered to travel light (20-30 lbs of kit per trooper) and controversially, no wheeled transport taken, with 6 and 9 pounder mountain guns being the only artillery taken. 8500 mules, donkeys and ponies would be utilised to carry the main supplies.
The march from Kabul to Kandahar is approximately 320 miles (although the chosen route through the Logar Valley was not the shortest, the valley's fertile land would supplement their supplies). The army paid for everything they took throughout the march including grain, fresh animals and even firewood – the local Afghans more than pleased to barter with the troops.
The stop at Ghazni proved to be brief; the column set off again very early in the cool of the morning of the 16th. By the end of the day’s march in the early afternoon, the temperatures had exceeded 100 °F with very little shade; sore feet and the constant scarcity of water adding to the extreme discomfort.
"The method, of such marching as was now put in practice is not easy to describe; it combined the extreme of freedom in movement with carefully regulated halts, and the closest control in every portion of the column; it employed the individual intelligence of each man composing the masses in motion, and called on all for exertion in overcoming the difficulties of the march, in bearing its extraordinary toil, and in aiding the accomplishment of the object in view." – General Chapman.
By the 24th, the relief column had reached Khelat-i-Ghilzai. General Roberts received a letter from General Primrose at Kandahar describing the sortie in the village of Deh Khoja earlier on the 16th, and informing Roberts of the situation. On the 25th, the relief column, joined now by the garrison of Kelat-i-Ghilzai, resumed their march towards Kandahar. General Phayre's relief column however had suffered many problems from his arduous trek and was still some distance from Kandahar.
The following day Roberts' relief force reached Tir Andaz. It was here that Roberts learned that Ayub Khan had lifted the siege of Kandahar and had retired north to the village of Mazra in the Urgundab valley. On the 27th, General Hugh Gough proceeded to Robat with two cavalry regiments, whilst the remainder of the force, moving somewhat slower, joined them in Robat on the 28th. It was now only 19 miles to Kandahar.
The long march from Kabul to Kandahar of the entire column of men, followers and baggage took 20 days – an average of just over 15 miles/day. The followers alone included nearly 2,200 dhooly-bearers, 4,700 transport men and over 1,200 servants. Although the march was unhindered by the Afghans, it was a historic and remarkable feat of human endurance and organisation.
On the morning of the 31 August 1880, the relief force reached Kandahar. However, for the last part of the trek General Roberts, struck down with fever, had to be carried in a dhooly (though for dignity's sake, the general had forced himself upon a horse when within sight of the city).
Ayub Khan's position
A rugged and precipitous spur separates the Arghandab valley from the Kandahar plain. Both valley and plain are linked via the Murcha Pass at the end of the spur, and the Babawali Pass cutting through it. The section of the spur from Babawali Pass to its tip, is known as the Pir Paimal Hill.
Behind this spur lies the village of Mazra, around which Ayub Khan had camped. As well as the spur, the Afghans had other geographic advantages. Directly behind Pir Paimal Hill lies the Kharoti Hill (both of which providing excellent firing positions) and, between the hills, deep irrigation channels offered excellent defensive cover.
A reconnaissance of the area on the afternoon of the 31st, carried out by General Gough and Colonel Chapman, garnered valuable information of these Afghan positions. However, their retirement from the reconnaissance came under concerted attack from Afghan regulars and irregulars. The Sikh infantry were so hard pressed that elements of the 1st and 3rd brigades were ordered into the action.
Armed with this hard-won military intelligence, Roberts decided to attack the following day – the morning of 1 September 1880. While the Babawali Pass would be bombarded by artillery, 1st and 2nd Infantry Brigades (3rd in Reserve) would attack the enemy between the Pir Paimal and Kharoti hills and push up the Urgundab valley towards Ayub Khan's main camp at Mazra. The Murcha and Babawali passes were to be covered by cavalry elements supported by General Primrose’s infantry and artillery. Gough's cavalry would move across the Urgundab, so as to reach by a wide circuit the anticipated line of the Afghan retreat.
Battle begins in earnest
A little after 9am, the artillery to the right of Picquet Hill began its bombardment of the Babawali pass – the Afghans replied with a three field-gun battery. However, before Roberts could push his army forward, Afghan positions in the villages of Gundi Mulla Sahibdad on the British right and Gundigan on the British left, had to be cleared.
The battle at Gundi Mulla Sahibdad was hard fought. General Macpherson advancing his 92nd Highlanders and 2nd Gurkhas met determined resistance to the attack that included a bayonet charge by the Highlanders. Both sides suffered casualties, but the Afghans came off far worse – possibly losing up to 200 men. After the village had been pacified, the brigade pushed towards the southwesterly point of Pir Paimal, constantly harassed by determined Afghan resistance.
Whilst General Macpherson advanced against Gundi Mulla Sahibdad, General Baker moved against Gundigan – the 72nd Highlanders and the 2nd Sikh Infantry in the van. Again the fighting was hard fought – the Afghans holding well-defended positions that only a concerted effort by the attackers could dislodge. However, the left wing of the 72nd (supported by 5th Gurkhas) finally took the village, whilst the right wing supported the Sikhs, battling through the orchards between the two villages. As General Baker’s brigade moved forward into the open it came under artillery fire from the extremity of the Pir Paimal hill and massed attacks from Ghazis; the latter resolutely repelled by the Highlanders and Sikhs.
The two brigades could now together move forward. Mcpherson’s brigade moved close around the spur to take the village of Pir Paimal. Having passed the village, the 92nd Highlanders under command of Major White met with determined resistance south west of the Babawali Pass. Despite reinforcements from Ayub Khan’s main camp at Mazra, Macpherson stormed the position - Major White’s Highlanders in the van supported by the 5th Gurkhas and 23rd Pioneers. Again a determined resistance and steady fire from the Afghans (many of whom firing from the slopes of the Pir Paimal hill) caused many Highlander casualties, but despite heavy losses, the British dispersed some 8000 Afghans at bayonet point.
While Macpherson's brigade advanced close under the ridge, Baker’s troops swept wider on the left; Colonel Money having been assigned to take possession of the Kharoti hill. From the northern end of the hill, Colonel Money could see Ayub Khan abandon his camp at Mazra in the face of the advancing forces of Macpherson and Baker.
Roberts had by now ordered MacGregor’s 3rd brigade to Pir Paimal village to where he himself and General Ross (commander of the whole infantry division) were to move. Here, General Ross, unable to discern the situation, ordered the forward brigades to halt and replenish their spent ammunition. However, this delay provided Ayub Khan some respite. When the British finally entered the camp at 1pm, it was deserted, save for the smartly abandoned detritus of an army in retreat.
Ayub Khan's army was now in full rout. Although the plan for General Gough’s cavalry to intercept the retreating Afghans did not work in practice, it was clear the British had achieved a decisive victory.
The Battle of Kandahar brought a close to the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Ayub Khan had been decisively beaten. He had lost the whole of his artillery, his camp, enormous quantities of ammunition, and about 1,000 men killed. Ayub Khan became a fugitive along with the small remnants of his battered army. The British appointee Abdur Rahman was thus securely established as emir of Afghanistan, under a protectorate which gave Britain control of Afghanistan's foreign policy, while the British government of India retained the frontier territories ceded by the Treaty of Gandamak. Having achieved the aims of their invasion of Afghanistan, the British withdrew. Ayub Khan subsequently raised a fresh rebellion against Abdur Rahman, but was swiftly defeated and killed, ending the threat to the new regime. (Note: according to the Wikipedia entry for Mohammad Ayub Khan, he died in 1914 in India. Also, the same page says that he was unable to attack Abdur Rahman due to not paying his soldiers, who refused to march.) This political settlement was to endure until the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919.
Roberts left Kandahar on 9 September and marched to Quetta with part of his division. On the 15 October, at Sibi, he resigned his command, and sailed from Bombay on the 30th, taking sick leave in England. The exploits of General Roberts in Afghanistan greatly boosted his reputation as a skillful and enterprising soldier. Many years later, Roberts' heroic march was commemorated by a statue in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Park upon which the motto Virtute et valore (by Virtue and Courage) is inscribed.
Order of battle
- James, Lawrence. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. Little, Brown & Company, (1997). ISBN 0-316-64072-7
- General Roberts' Relief from Kabul to Kandahar
- Order of Battle
- Kabul-Kandahar Star medal
- Statue of Roberts at Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow
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