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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
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 Artillery.

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 War:
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.

British Regiments:
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 Highlanders. *
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 *

Poona Horse
Poona Horse

Kandahar Regiments:
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 Roberts VC KCB
Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Roberts,
VC, KCB: "Bobs Bahadur" (Bobs the Lion) to
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. KCB.
Cavalry Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Hugh Gough VC CB.
9th Lancers
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
5th Gurkhas

Third Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General CM MacGregor CB
2nd Battalion 60th Rifles
15th Bengal Native Infantry (Ludhiana Sikhs)
25th Bengal Native Infantry (Punjabis)
4th Gurkhas

Map of the Battle of Kandahar
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 Phayre respectively.

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.

Central Indian Horse
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 town.

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 three weeks.

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 Guard

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 Paimal.

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 Armies.

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.
• 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 sepoy prisoner.
• 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 Egyptian campaign.
• 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 Robson.
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)