General Robert’s March to Kandahar and the Battle of Baba Wali
Battle: General Robert’s March to Kandahar and the Battle
of Baba Wali.
War: Second Afghan War
Date: 1st September 1880.
Place: Southern Afghanistan.
Combatants: Troops of the British, Bengal and Bombay
Armies against Afghan regular troops and tribesmen.
Generals: Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Roberts VC KCB
against Ayub Khan.
Size of the armies: General Roberts force from Kabul
comprised 2,562 British and 7,151 Indian troops. Some 2,000 troops
took part in the final battle from the British and Indian troops of
the Kandahar garrison. The Afghan army comprised.
2nd Gurkhas and 92nd Highlanders repel an attack by
Afghan tribesmen during the Kandahar March
Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The British and Indian forces were made up predominantly of
native Indian regiments from the three presidency armies: the
Bengal, Bombay and Madras armies with smaller regional forces such
as the Hyderabad contingent, and the newest, the powerful Punjab
Frontier Force. Indian regiments were brigaded with British
regiments for deployment in the field.
The Mutiny of 1857 brought great change to the Indian Army. Prior
to the Mutiny the old regiments of the presidencies were recruited
from the higher caste Brahmin Hindus and Muslims of the provinces of
Central and Eastern India, principally Oudh. 60 of the 90 infantry
regiments of the Bengal Army mutinied in 1857 and many more were
disbanded leaving few to survive in their pre-1857 form. A similar
proportion of Bengal Cavalry regiments disappeared.
Highlanders, Sikhs and Gurkhas watch the defeated Afghans being
pursued across the plain
on the far side of the river by the British and Punjabi cavalry
after the Battle of Kandahar
The British Army overcame the mutineers with the assistance of
the few loyal regiments of the Bengal Army and the regiments of the
Bombay and Madras Presidencies, which on the whole did not mutiny.
But principally the British turned to the Gurkhas, Sikhs, Muslims of
the Punjab and Baluchistan and the Pathans of the North West
Frontier for the new regiments with which Delhi was recaptured and
the Mutiny suppressed.
After the Mutiny the British developed the concept of the
“Martial Races” of India. Certain Indian races were more suitable to
serve as soldiers, went the argument, and those were coincidentally
the races that had saved India for Britain. The Indian regiments
that invaded Afghanistan in 1878, although mostly from the Bengal
Army, were predominantly recruited from the “martial” races: Jats,
Sikhs, Muslim and Hindu Punjabis, Pathans, Baluchis and Gurkhas.
9th Lancers on Exercise in England
Prior to the Mutiny each army had a full quota of field and horse
artillery batteries. The only Indian artillery units allowed to
exist after the Mutiny were the mountain batteries. All the horse,
field and siege batteries were from 1859 found by the British Royal
In 1878 the regiments were beginning to adopt “khaki” for field
operations. The technique for dying uniforms varied widely producing
a range of shades of khaki, from bottle green to a light brown drab.
As regulation uniforms were unsatisfactory for field conditions
in Afghanistan, the officers in most regiments improvised more
serviceable forms of clothing.
Every Indian regiment was commanded by British officers, in a
proportion of some 7 officers to 650 soldiers in the infantry. This
was an insufficient number for units in which all tactical decisions
of significance were taken by the British and was particularly
inadequate for less experienced units.
The British infantry carried the single shot, breech loading, .45
Martini-Henry rifle. The Indian regiments still used the Snider;
also a breech loading single shot rifle, but of older pattern and a
conversion of the obsolete muzzle loading Enfield weapon.
The cavalry were armed with sword, lance and carbines,
Martini-Henry for the British; Sniders for the Indian.
Team Photograph at the Battle of Kandahar
The British artillery, using a variety of guns, many smooth bored
muzzle loaders, was not as effective as it could have been if the
authorities had equipped it with the breech loading steel guns being
produced for European armies. Artillery support was frequently
ineffective and on occasions the Afghan artillery proved to be
better equipped than the British.
The army in India possessed no higher formations above the
regiment in times of peace other than the staffs of static
garrisons. There was no operational training for staff officers. On
the outbreak of war brigade and divisional staffs had to be formed
and learn by experience.
Afghanistan showing all the battle sites of the Second Afghan
Ali Masjid, Peiwar Kotal, Charasiab and Kabul in the North East:
Ahmed Khel in the centre and Maiwand and Kandahar in the South
The British Army had in 1870 replaced long service with short
service for its soldiers. The system was not yet universally applied
so that some regiments in Afghanistan were short service and others
still manned by long service soldiers. The Indian regiments were all
manned by long service soldiers. The universal view seems to have
been that the short service regiments were weaker both in fighting
power and disease resistance than the long service.
Winner: The British and Indian Army.
Regiments from Kabul:
9th Lancers, from 1966 9th/12th Royal Lancers.*
3rd Bengal Cavalry *
23rd Bengal Cavalry *
1st Central India Horse *
2nd Central India Horse *
3 batteries Mountain Artillery.
2nd Battalion 60th Rifles, now Royal Green Jackets. *
72nd (Duke of Albany’s) Highlanders, later Seaforth Highlanders, now
the Highlanders. *
92nd (Gordon) Highlanders, later Gordon Highlanders, now the
15th Bengal Native Infantry (Ludhiana Sikhs) *
23rd Bengal Native Infantry (Punjab Pioneers) *
24th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis) *
25th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis) *
2nd Prince of Wales’s Own Gurkhas *
4th Gurkhas *
5th Gurkhas *
2nd Sikh Infantry *
3rd Sikh Infantry *
E/B Battery Royal Horse Artillery
3rd Queen’s Own (Bombay Cavalry) *
3rd Scinde Horse (Bombay Army) *
HM 7th Royal Fusiliers, now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. *
HM 66th Foot (remainder of) from 1882 Royal Berkshire Regiment and
now the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment. *
1st Grenadiers (Bombay Army) *
4th Bombay Native Infantry *
19th Bombay Native Infantry *
28th Bombay Native Infantry (Jacob’s Rifles) *
29th Balluch Battalion *
* These regiments have Kandahar as a battle honour.
Lieutenant General Sir Frederick
VC, KCB: "Bobs Bahadur" (Bobs the Lion)
the Indian Army regiments.
To the British regiments just "Our Bobs".
The Order of Battle of the Kabul-Kandahar Field Force:
Commander in Chief: Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Roberts VC.
Cavalry Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Hugh Gough VC CB.
3rd Bengal Cavalry
23rd Bengal Cavalry
Central India Horse
Artillery Brigade: commanded by Colonel Alured Johnson
3 batteries Mountain Artillery.
Infantry Division: commanded by Major General Sir John Ross KCB
First Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General H. Macpherson VC CB
92nd (Gordon) Highlanders
23rd Bengal Native Infantry (Punjab Pioneers)
24th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis)
2nd Prince of Wales’s Own Gurkhas
Second Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General TD Baker CB
72nd (Duke of Albany’s) Highlanders
2nd Sikh Infantry
3rd Sikh Infantry
Third Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General CM MacGregor CB
2nd Battalion 60th Rifles
15th Bengal Native Infantry (Ludhiana Sikhs)
25th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis)
The Battle of Kandahar or Baba Wali
The disastrous defeat at Maiwand, 40 miles west of Kandahar, on
27th July 1880 threw British plans into disarray, after two years of
uninterrupted success in the Second Afghan War. The remaining Bombay
brigade found itself besieged in Kandahar by Ayub Khan’s victorious
army, the nearest support hundreds of miles away in Kabul and in
Quetta, forces commanded by General Roberts and Brigadier General
Roberts moved first, his troops being relatively concentrated
around the Afghan capital while Phayre’s Bombay troops were
scattered along the lengthy lines of communication connecting
Kandahar with India, from Quetta to the Indus River.
On 8th August 1880 Roberts marched out of the Sherpur cantonment in
Kabul with his Kabul-Kandahar Field Force; his renowned march to
Kandahar had begun.
The Central India Horse
The Central Indian Horse and a battery of artillery, coming up
from Gandamak, caught up the next day as Robert’s army moved across
high ground to join the main Kandahar road near Ghuznee, before
marching south down that road. The pace was forced as hard as
possible; only mountain artillery accompanying the infantry and
cavalry; with supplies carried by camel. The days were hot and the
nights cold; the troops marching out in the early morning to avoid
the full heat of the sun, halting a few minutes every hour, with
camp pitched at around midday, in this fashion managing to cover up
to 20 miles a day.
On 23rd August 1880 the force reached Kalat-i-Ghilzai, 140 miles
beyond Ghuznee. The pace of the march was taking its toll with
soldiers falling sick at the rate of 500 a day.
Messages from Kandahar suggested there was no pressing urgency as
the garrison was well able to hold out for some time yet and so,
with 88 miles to go, Roberts’ permitted his force to rest at
Kelat-i-Ghilzai. When he moved on, Roberts took the British garrison
with him, it no longer being part of the British plan to hold the
On 27th August 1880 word reached Roberts that Ayub Khan had
abandoned his siege of Kandahar and withdrawn westwards. Roberts
sent Brigadier General Gough’s cavalry brigade to search him out.
Roberts halted at Robat on 28th August 1880 to allow his force to
concentrate and officers came out from Kandahar to give him the
latest intelligence and consult with him.
On 31st August 1880 the Kabul Field Force reached Kandahar and
entered the city. Roberts’ 10,000 troops had marched 300 miles in
General Roberts and his troops during the March to Kandahar
Roberts resolved to move against Ayub Khan the same day. Ayub’s
camp lay to the West of Kandahar, between the Baba Wali range of
hills, which rose to 5,000 feet, and the Argandab River, the hills
breached by the Baba Wali Kotal and the Murcha Pass. The main
assault would be made by the Kabul Field Force with Bombay troops
providing a diversion. Nuttall’s brigade of Bombay cavalry,
survivors from the battle at Maiwand, was to picket the Murcha,
while Bombay infantry and the 7th Royal Fusiliers threatened the
Baba Wali Kotal. In the main attack Robert’s Bengal force would move
around the southern end of the hills and advance North up the river
to Ayub’s camp, taking the villages on the way.
A British Mountain Battery on the line of march to Kandahar
Roberts had 11,000 men and 32 guns in the field against Ayub
Khan’s 13,000 Afghan regular troops and tribesmen and also 32 guns.
The battle began the next morning at around 9.30am with artillery
bombardments of the Baba Wali Kotal and the foremost villages held
by the Afghans.
2nd Gurkhas in camp on the march from Kandahar to Kabul: The Quarter
Following the bombardment, the 92nd Highlanders and the 2nd
Gurkhas, supported by the 23rd and 24th BNI attacked the village of
Gundimullah Sahibdad. After 2 hours of close combat the village was
carried and the troops moved on to the next fortified village, Pir
To the South the 72nd (Albany) Highlanders and the 2nd Sikhs took
Gundigan, the colonel of the 72nd being killed in the assault.
At around midday both infantry brigades began the assault on Pir
Paimal, the last stronghold shielding Ayub’s camp, the Third Brigade
coming up in support.
As Roberts planned, the Afghans, their retreat threatened by the
advance on Pir Paimal, began to melt away. The final Afghan
fortifications outside the camp were heavily defended by guns,
leading the British and Indian troops to expect a severe test. The
regiments stormed forward, led by Major George White of the 92nd and
Lieutenant Colonel Money of the 3rd Sikhs to find the line
abandoned. The Afghans had gone.
As the infantry advanced Gough’s cavalry brigade picked its way
through the maze of walled gardens and fields, only to be ordered
back to cross the Argandab River and cut off the Afghan retreat. By
the time the cavalry had retraced their path and crossed the river
the horses were exhausted and the Afghans had largely gone,
retreating west towards Herat.
The last battle of the Second Afghan War had been fought.
9th Lancers on the Line of March from Kabul to Kandahar
Roberts’ force captured all Ayub Khan’s guns, including the 2 guns
captured from the Royal Horse Artillery at Maiwand. British and
Indian casualties were 248 killed and wounded. Afghan casualties
were estimated at around 2,500.
The British and Indian regiments finally withdrew from
Afghanistan in April 1881. By the Treaty of Gandamak a substantial
swathe of Afghan territory became part of India, including much
mountainous tribal territory. The result was 65 years of almost
incessant warfare between those tribes and the British and Indian
The Second Afghan War imposed an enormous financial strain on the
Government of India, causing the disbanding of numbers of Indian
Army regiments as an economy measure.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
• Roberts’ march to Kandahar captured the imagination of the
Victorian British Empire and was considered a triumph of
determination and organsiation. General Roberts was later elevated
to the peerage as a baron, earl and then a viscount.
• General Roberts, an artillery officer known to his soldiers
affectionately as “Bobs”, suffered the loss of an eye in childhood.
An Old Etonian, Roberts won the Victoria Cross in the Indian Mutiny
and went on to command the Indian Army and then the British and
Empire troops in the Boer War. He suffered personal tragedy in the
death of his two sons, Freddie dying in the attempt to rescue the
guns at Colenso in the Boer War while winning the Victoria Cross.
• During the attack on Gundimullah Lieutenant Menzies of the 92nd
found himself attacked by numbers of Ghazis. Knocked to the ground
Menzies was rescued first by a drummer from his own regiment and
then by a Gurkha.
Drummer Roddick rescuing Lieutenant Menzies of the 92nd Highlanders
• Major George White earned the Victoria Cross leading the attack on
the Afghan fortification. He was followed by Sepoy Inderbir Lama of
the 2nd Gurkhas, who marked an Afghan gun as taken for his regiment
by hanging his cap over the muzzle. White commanded the British
force shut up in Ladysmith in the Boer War. References:
• During the confusion of the final attack on the Afghan camp
Lieutenant Hector Maclaine, Royal Horse Artillery, a prisoner from
the retreat after Maiwand, was murdered by his Afghan guards with a
• During the war Colour Sergeant Hector MacDonald of the 92nd was
commissioned in the field for bravery and initiative. MacDonald
achieved promotion to brigadier and distinguished himself in the
• A week after the battle Brigadier General Daubeny and a force
marched to Maiwand to bury the British and Indian dead and examine
the scene of the heavy defeat of the previous month.
• British officers irreverently referred to Roberts’ march to
Kandahar, apparently competing with Phayre to relieve the city, as
“The Race for the Peerage.”
The Road to Kabul - the Second Afghan War 1878 to 1881 by Brian
Recent British Battles by Grant.
The Afghan War medal issued to a trooper in the 10th
Hussars with the clasp Ali Masjid. With thanks to Historik
Orders of Greenwich, Connecticut, USA (right)
The Kabul and Kandahar Star, issued to those regiments that
fought at Kabul, took part in General Roberts’ march to
Kandahar and in the battle at Kandahar. With thanks to
Historik Orders of Greenwich, Conn. USA. (left)