AFGHanistan & THE British RAJ AT RGSSA:
The Second "Afghan War", 1878-1880
AND ITS AFTERMATH
The Second Afghan War (or Second Anglo-Afghan War) was the second major conflict between the British and Afghanistan. It took place from 1878 to 1880 and incorporated not only a crushing defeat for the British and a resounding victory for the Afghans at the Battle of Maiwand, but also a much-celebrated victory for the British at the Battle of Kandahar, or Relief of Kandahar, which ended the war in 1880. The British were enabled to claim over-all victory but they never managed to establish British rule in Afghanistan.(1)
The Second Afghan War was split into two campaigns or phases, the first taking place from November 1878 to May 1879, and the second lasting from September 1879 to September 1880 (2). The forces involved on the British side were now under the direct control of the British Government, which had by this time taken over the rule of British India from the East India Company. As it had also taken over the old regiments, many of the older men serving in the war had also seen service with the East India Company’s Army.
Prelude to Conflict: British Lion Reacts to Advancing Russian Bear
As always with Afghan matters, the background to the conflict is complex. The Russians were expanding into Central Asia. In the summer of 1878 "Russia sent an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul."(1) The Amir of Afghanistan at this time was Sher Ali Khan of the Barakzai dynasty, a son of Dost Mohammad Khan. When the British demanded the Amir accept a mission from them as well, he refused permission and threatened to stop any effort to send one. Nevertheless the Viceroy of India, Lord Lytton, ordered a diplomatic mission to set out for Kabul in September 1878. It was turned back on approaching the British India end of the Khyber Pass. This triggered the war.
The First Phase
Above: 45th Rattray's Sikhs with prisoners from the Second Afghan War, 1878. “The three Afghan prisoners captured in the advance through the Khurd Khyber are sitting in the centre of the photograph, surrounded by Sikh guards. The 45th Sikh Regiment was raised in 1856 by Captain Thomas Rattray, and was popularly known as Rattray’s Sikhs. ... The Regiment served in the Fourth Infantry Brigade, part of the Peshawar Valley Field Force, during the Second Afghan War. The prisoners were lucky to have survived because in the harsh conditions and terrain of the Afghan Wars no quarter was given and prisoners taken, on both sides” -Wikipedia.
The first campaign began in November 1878. The British sent in a force of about 40,000 troops, penetrating the country from three different points The major battle of this period was the Battle of Ali Masjid. Much of the country was successfully occupied by the British.
On the death of the Amir Sher Ali in February 1879 the British seized the opportunity to make the Treaty of Gandamak with the new Amir, Sher Ali's son Mohammad Yaqub Khan. The negotiator was Pierre Cavagnari, in spite of the name a British officer and administrator who had seen service with the Army of the East India Company.(3)
|Cavagnari sitting with a group of Afghan tribesmen|
The treaty, signed in May 1879, ended the first phase of the Second Afghan War. "According to this agreement and in return for an annual subsidy and vague assurances of assistance in case of foreign aggression, Yaqub relinquished control of Afghan foreign affairs to Britain. British representatives were installed in Kabul and other locations, British control was extended to the Khyber and Michni passes, and Afghanistan ceded various North-West Frontier Province areas and Quetta to Britain. The British Army then withdrew." (1)
As can well be imagined, the Afghans were not satisfied with this state of affairs, and there was an uprising in Kabul in September 1879. Cavagnari, who had been given the post of British representative in Kabul, also receiving the Star of India and a KCB, was killed along with the other European members of the mission and their guards, members of The Guides, when he refused the Afghans' demands.(3) This provoked the next phase of the Second Afghan War.
The Second Phase
In the second phase of the war Major General Sir Frederick Roberts "defeated the Afghan Army at Char Asiab on 6 October 1879, and occupied Kabul." A rebellion in December 1879 failed. "Yaqub Khan, suspected of complicity in the massacre of Cavagnari and his staff, was obliged to abdicate."(1)
British Install Abdur Rahman Khan as Amir
There were several solutions the British considered but in the end they opted for installing Abdur Rahman Khan, (more properly Abd al-Rahman Khan), a cousin of Yaqub Khan, as Amir. The consequences of this decision, as we'll see when we look at the aftermath of the war, were extremely significant.
Afghan Victory at Battle of Maiwand
At this Yaqub Khan's brother, Ayub Khan, who had been serving as governor of Herat, rose in revolt. In the Battle of Maiwand on 27th July 1880 he totally defeated the British troops under General Burrows. It was "the biggest British disaster, and the greatest Afghan victory" of the war.(2)
Ayub's next move was to besiege the remainder of the British garrison at Kandahar. In response, on 8th August 1880 General Roberts set out with an army of 10,000 from Kabul to relieve Kandahar—over 300 miles away.
The Relief of Kandahar
The relief of Kandahar is one of the military exploits recounted in the book based on Edmund Musgrave Barttelot's writings and published after his death by his brother Walter:
Barttelot, Walter George, & Barttelot, Edmund Musgrave, 1859-1888
The life of Edmund Musgrave Barttelot, Captain and Brevet-Major Royal Fusiliers, Commander of the Rear Column of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition : being an account of his services for the relief of Kandahar, of Gordon, and of Emin, from his letters and diary. 3rd ed.
London, R. Bentley, 1890
Barttelot had a successful military career but his reputation in Britain was seriously marred by his madness and resultant death in Africa. His name crops up in several publications of the late 1880s and early 1890s about the Dark Continent because he was one of the explorers in "Stanley's rear-guard", the Rear Column of Henry Morton Stanley's "Emin Pasha Relief Expedition" of 1887-1889. According to some accounts Stanley's own picture of this incident was extremely prejudiced. Walter Barttelot's book was intended to defend his brother's reputation.(4)
Several years before this tragic episode, however, Edmund Barttelot was an officer with the 7th Royal Fusiliers in India, and was thus amongst the troops who relieved Kandahar. "The march from Kabul to Kandahar was quite a feat in that it moved so many men such a distance and in a relatively short period of time. They marched through terrific heat and dryness, not knowing what resistance they would meet on the way..."(2) General Roberts's venture was, however, a resounding success. Kandahar was relieved: "the day after Roberts arrived, on September 1st, he defeated Ayub Khan and the Afghan army, effectively ending the conflict of the Second Afghan War." (2)
A British Victory or Not?
With the confirmation of the Treaty of Gandamak by the British Government's choice, the Amir Abdur Rahman, the British retained control both of the territories ceded by Yaqub Khan, and of Afghanistan's foreign policy, in exchange for protection and a subsidy. They would no longer maintain a British Resident in Kabul, it having at last dawned, after the successive murders of their representatives during the First and Second Anglo-Afghan Wars, that this was considered provocation by the Afghan people. This situation was generally depicted in rosy terms by English writers, an attitude which is reflected in many modern accounts, but this was largely spin. Maybe the advance of the Russian bear towards the territory of the British Raj had been halted—but internal events in Russia were fast overtaking Russian policies in any case.
|"The Khaiber Pass. A village in the pass belonging to independent Afghans,|
showing tower and fortifications", photograph by T.L. Pennell
Aftermath oF War: The Reign of The Iron Amir
After 1879 the fate of Afghanistan was shaped by the new Amir, the British-appointed Abd al-Rhaman Khan (or Abdur Rhaman, as contemporary accounts refer to him).
|The Amir Abd al-Rahman Khan|
The Royal Geographical Society of South Australia holds several books about the Amir. A close-up is provided by:
Gray, John Alfred, 1857-1929
At the court of the Amir.
London : R. Bentley, 1895
John Alfred Gray's personal account describes the court life in Kabul in the latter part of the 19th century during the reign of the Amir Abd al-Rhaman Khan, covering such diverse topics as "Life in Kabul"; "The Kabul bazaars"; "Ethics"; "Afghan surgeons and physicians"; "Life in Turkestan"; "The birth of Prince Mahomed Omer"; "The rearing of the infant Prince"; "The Amir"; "The Amir's conversation"; and "The Amir as an art critic". Dr. John Gray was surgeon to the Amir for five years. He was only a young man when he went out on his adventure to Afghanistan. Back in England he did a further a medical qualification and settled down to a practice in the respectable London borough of Ealing (5)—a far cry from the exotic opulence of the Amir's court!
Afghan Life in the Later 19th Century
|"A Cavalry Shutur-Sowar or Camel-Rider", photograph by T.L. Pennell|
Life for most of the population was of course nothing like court life. It's not the accounts of the explorers and soldiers, but those of the missionaries, which afford us a view of how the ordinary people lived. During the 19th century there was a stronger and stronger British missionary presence in the Indian subcontinent, and by the later part of the century they had made tentative inroads into Afghanistan—not an easy task on a merely physical level, when we consider the terrain, and near to impossible on the theological level. Whatever we may think today of these earnest proselytizers, they did make a genuine contribution to the health and physical welfare of the people amongst whom they lived. There are many testaments to such endeavours in the literature of the British Raj and of the British Empire in general. One such in the RGSSA library is:
Pennell, T. L. (Theodore Leighton), 1867-1912.
Among the wild tribes of the Afghan frontier : a record of sixteen years' close intercourse with the natives of the Indian marches. 5th & cheaper ed.
London : Seeley, Service & Co., 1913
Theodore Leighton Pennell (1867-1912) was an English medical missionary during the 19th century. His work took him over a wide stretch of the territory then known as the Northwest Frontier of British India, in what is now Pakistan, and thence to Afghanistan. His book Among the wild tribes of the Afghan frontier abounds with descriptions of the lifestyles, habits and customs of the Pushtun peoples of the area. Together with his photographs of the daily lives of the people these accounts are the enduring legacy of his work, and a valuable contribution to the social history of the area.
|"Women going for water at Shimvah"|
Above is one of the few contemporary pictures of women of the Frontier area; nearly all of the figure studies in the books on Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier in the RGSSA’s collection are of men.
Efforts at conversion such as those of Pennell, nibbling away at the fringes of Afghan territory, were never to lead to anything more. The Amir chosen by the British was never going to allow his people to be converted—or, indeed, Westernised at all.
The Iron Amir
Abd al-Rahman Khan (or Abdur Rahman Khan), the British choice for Amir during the Second Afghan War, was to reign successfully and firmly over Afghanistan until his death in 1901, becoming known as "The Iron Amir."
|"Abdur Rahman, the late Amir of Afghanistan: drawing by Lady Helen Graham"|
Wheeler, Stephen, 1854-1937
The Ameer Abdur Rahman.
London: Bliss, Sands and Foster, 1895. (Public men of to-day)
Willcocks, James, Sir, 1857-1926.
From Kabul to Kumassi : twenty-four years of soldiering and sport / by James Willcocks ; illustrations by Helen Graham.
London ; Murray, 1904.
The Amir was both ruthless and politically adept. Cruel episodes of genocide went side-by-side with the cool-headed balancing of the opposing powers which surrounded him in Central Asia. During his reign he completely consolidated his position and gained dominion over the warring tribes of Afghanistan.
The results of their appointment were doubtless not what the British had expected: far from being a puppet, the Amir used the British government's annual subsidy of 1,850,000 rupees to import munitions, and "availed himself of European inventions for strengthening his armament, while he sternly set his face against all innovations which, like Railways and Telegraphs, might give Europeans a foothold within his country." He was a fervent believer in Islam, in 1896 adopting the title of Zia-ul-Millat-Wa-ud Din ("Light of the nation and religion"); an educated man, he published treatises on jihad. (6)
It is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that Amir Abd al-Rahman’s religious conservatism and fierce patriotism, both of which prompted him to shun the West and its ways, in combination with the militarism which had always characterised the Afghan dynasties, a tradition which he continued and consolidated, moulded the Afghanistan of today.
Going one step further, we might say that the current conflict in Afghanistan can be traced back, not merely to the country’s tribal roots and endless dynastic quarrels, but to the British choice of Abdur Rahman Khan as their preferred ruler during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
(1) "Second Anglo-Afghan War", Wikipedia
(2) "The Second Anglo-Afghan War, 1878-1880",
(3) "Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari", Wikipedia
(4) "Edmund Musgrave Barttelot", Wikipedia
(5) "[Obituary: Dr. John Gray]", British Medical Journal, 2 (3595), p. 1034 (Nov. 30 1929), http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2452545/?page=1
(6) "Abdur Rahman Khan", Wikipedia