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The Battle of Maiwand

War: Second Afghan War

Date: 27th July 1880.

Place: West of Kandahar in Southern Afghanistan.

Combatants: British troops and Indian troops of the Bombay Army against Afghan regular troops and tribesmen.

Generals: Brigadier General Burrows against Ayub Khan.

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Royal Horse Artillery at Maiwand
The stand of the 11 men and Bobbie the dog from the 66th
Regiment at the Battle of Maiwand: picture by Frank Feller.

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Size of the armies: 2,500 British and Indian troops with 6 RHA guns and 6 smooth bore guns against 3,000 Afghan cavalry and 9,000 infantry with 6 batteries of artillery (36 guns).

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.

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Royal Horse Artillery at Maiwand
Lieutenant Hector Maclaine leads his section of
Royal Horse Artillery guns across the Main Ravine

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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.

Map of the Battle of Maiwand
The Battle of Maiwand

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.

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.

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.


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

Winner: Resoundingly the Afghans.


Bombay Native Infantry

British Regiments:
E/B Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, now Maiwand Battery, 29th Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery.
3rd Queen’s Own (Bombay Cavalry)
3rd Scinde Horse (Bombay Army)
HM 66th Foot (less 2 companies), from 1882 Royal Berkshire Regiment and now the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment.
1st Grenadiers (Bombay Army)
30th Bombay Native Infantry (Jacob’s Rifles)
2nd Company Bombay Sappers and Miners (half company)


The 66th Foot in England before leaving for India and the Second Afghan War.

Account:
When in March 1879 Lieutenant General Sir Donald Stewart marched north to Kabul with his division of Bengal Army and British regiments, Kandahar was left to the Wali, its Afghan ruler, and a replacement garrison of Bombay and British troops under Major General Primrose. The Bengal regiments in the North of Afghanistan were to withdraw to India during 1880 leaving only Kandahar Province occupied by British and Indian troops.

In early 1880 the word reached Kandahar that the younger brother of the deposed Ameer of Afghanistan Yakoub Khan, Ayub Khan, was about to march with his army from Herat to Ghuznee, passing to the North of Kandahar.

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E/B Battery Royal Horse Artillery and the 66th Foot before the battle
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The Wali of Kandahar urged the British to intercept Ayub at Girishk on the Helmond River to prevent him from raising the whole countryside by his armed passage.

The Indian Government directed General Primrose to send a brigade to Girishk and to bring regiments up from the reserve division as replacements.

Primrose appointed Brigadier General Burrows commander of the field brigade with Brigadier General Nuttall commanding the cavalry.


Bombay Light Cavalry

The two cavalry regiments, 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry and the 3rd Scinde Horse marched out of Kandahar on 4th July 1880, followed by the infantry and guns the next day.

Burrows force joined the Wali’s troops at Girishk only for the Wali’s men to mutiny, many joining Ayub Khan’s army, the British seizing their 6 antiquated smooth bore guns and forming a makeshift battery manned by soldiers from the 66th Foot.

Late on 26th July 1880 Burrows received intelligence that Ayub’s force was moving through the Malmund Pass and would reach the village of Maiwand the next day, poised to march on Ghuznee. If Burrows had marched on hearing the news he might have reached Maiwand before Ayub. Instead the brigade marched in the early hours of the next day, after a particularly trying time assembling its baggage.


A soldier of the 66th in Southern Afghanistan

As the British/Indian brigade approached Maiwand, Ayub’s army could be seen marching across its front in the swirling dust storms that swept the semi-desert area. Burrows formed the view that he could reach Maiwand before the Afghans, urging his troops forward.

Burrows force passed the village of Mundabad and found it had reached a substantial ravine 25 feet deep, running along its front. Instead of taking up defensive positions at the ravine and in the village, Burrows ordered his force across the ravine into the open plain beyond.

Ayub’s force comprised regular regiments from Kabul and Herat, the Wali’s force which had deserted to him and tribesmen, making the force up to around 12,000 men, including 3,000 cavalry. Burrows, by contrast, had available for his line around 1,500 infantry and 350 cavalry, after telling off the necessary baggage guard.

Bombay Grenadiers
Bombay Grenadiers

The British guns crossed the ravine and continued forward to a position where the Afghans were in range and opened fire.

The guns advanced considerably further than Burrow intended, the infantry and cavalry hurrying up in support, the infantry in a line with the 66th on the right, Jacob’s Rifles in the centre and the 1st Grenadiers on the left.

The first phase of the battle comprised an artillery duel; the Afghans out shooting the British, having a greater number of more modern and heavier guns, including 6 state-of-the-art Armstrong guns. The 1st Grenadiers and the cavalry suffered significant casualties while the 66th and Jacob’s Rifles were able to find cover from the bombardment.

Following the artillery exchange the Afghan infantry massed in front of the British/Indian line for an assault. In a pre-emptive move Burrows ordered the 1st Grenadiers to attack, but cancelled the order even though the advance was making progress, fearing that the Grenadiers were suffering excessive casualties from the Afghan gunfire.

The advance across the open plain exposed the British/Indian left flank; the threat from the enveloping Afghan cavalry causing Burrows to move 2 companies of Jacobs Rifles to this flank and bolstering them with two of the smooth bore guns on their left between the Rifles and the troops of the baggage guard.

The British commanders had not realized that a hidden second ravine ran beside the force’s other flank, joining the main ravine in their right rear. The Afghans used this ravine during the battle to infiltrate down the British/Indian right flank forcing the 66th Foot to wheel to face the Afghans, until the regiment faced at right angles to its neighbours, Jacob’s Rifles and the 1st Bombay Grenadiers.


Saving the guns at Maiwand: E/B Battery Royal Horse Artillery
(now the Maiwand Battery).

Burrows’ force was now seriously strung out in a horse shoe formation, exposed by the abortive advance of the infantry line, the Afghan cavalry massing on the left flank and tribesmen and infantry and guns infiltrating down the right flank by way of the subsidiary ravine.

In the early afternoon the two smoothbore guns ran out of ammunition and withdrew, a move which severely unsettled the two companies of Jacobs Rifles on the left flank, already suffering from the artillery fire and the heat.


Gunners of the Royal Horse Artillery rescuing unhorsed colleagues
during the hectic retreat from the Afghan charge : Picture by Lady Butler

With the departure of the smooth bores, the Afghan cavalry were enabled to infiltrate behind the British/Indian left flank. Efforts were made to counter this move with volley firing from the two companies of Jacob’s Rifles, but the fire was largely ineffective, the companies inexperienced and commanded by a newly joined officer almost unknown to his soldiers.

On the British/Indian right flank, the Afghans continued to pass down the subsidiary ravine. A move was made by troops of the Scind Horse to attack these Afghans but the cavalry were recalled.

66th Foot
The 66th Foot at Maiwand

Ayub brought two of his guns down the subsidiary ravine and commenced firing at short range, probably as short as 300 metres, into the 1st Grenadiers.

In the early afternoon the guns ceased firing and a mass of Afghan tribesman charged the British/Indian infantry line. The two companies of Jacob’s Rifles on the left fled leaving the flank of the 1st Grenadiers wholly exposed.

The Afghans cut down numbers of the Grenadiers, the Indian soldiers apparently too exhausted and demoralized to resist.

The RHA guns positioned in the centre of the line fired a last salvo and withdrew in haste, the Afghans reaching within yards of the retreating guns and overwhelming the left section. Seeing the guns go the remainder of Jacob’s Rifles dissolved into the left wing of the 66th throwing the right of the line into confusion.

Burrows sent Nuttall an order to charge the Afghans with his cavalry in an attempt to restore the situation. Only 150 cavalry could be assembled and these men charged halfheartedly at the Afghans surrounding the Grenadiers and withdrew immediately after the contact. Burrows rode about the field attempting to bring about a further cavalry attack, but without success.

The British guns fired from a position to the rear of the infantry and were then forced to withdraw across the main ravine, coming into action several times from positions further back.

66th Foot at the Battle of Maiwand in 1880
The last stand of the 66th Foot at Maiwand against the Afghans: the Eleven (2 officers and 9 soldiers) sell their lives dearly outside the village of Khig. Bobbie the dog can be seen at their feet.

The infantry fell back in two separate directions, the left wing falling back towards Mundabad, the right, comprising the 66th, the Sappers and Miners and most of the Grenadiers pushed towards the village of Khig. Many of the Grenadiers were killed during the retreat to the main ravine. The 66th, broken up by the collapse of the two Indian regiments, fell back in small groups, fighting as they went.

The 66th and the Grenadiers, pursued by large numbers of Afghans, crossed the ravine into Khig, where around 100 officers and men made a stand in a garden on the edge of the village. Overwhelmed, the survivors withdrew through Khig with a second stand in a walled garden. The final stand was made by 11 survivors of the 66th outside the village, 2 officers and 9 soldiers.


The colossal memorial Lion in Forbury Gardens, Reading, commemorating the Battle of Maiwand and the loss of the 66th Regiment

The remnants of the army was enabled to leave the field, the right wing of the Afghan army held off by the surviving companies of the Grenadiers, fighting until their ammunition was exhausted and then overwhelmed.

Straggles of the 66th
Stragglers of the 66th (Berkshires)
coming in by Harry Payne"

Burrows, the British commander, made his way through Khig, giving up his horse to a wounded officer and being rescued by a warrant officer of the Scind Horse, unaware that the remnant of his infantry right wing was fighting to the death behind him.

The escaping British and Indian troops and camp followers streamed up the road towards Kandahar, pursued by the Afghan cavalry. During the disorganized retreat the pursuing Afghan cavalry were held off by a squadron of the Scind Horse, the RHA battery and the infantry from the baggage guard, although many stragglers were caught and killed, particularly the wounded.

The Afghans on foot were distracted by the resistance in Khig and by the Grenadiers and the opportunity to loot the British and Indian baggage.

The survivors of the brigade struggled on to Kandahar until they were met by a small relieving force and the Afghan cavalry withdrew.

Casualties: The British and Indian force lost 21 officers and 948 soldiers killed. 8 officers and 169 men were wounded. The Grenadiers lost 64% of their strength and the 66th lost 62%, including 12 officers. The cavalry losses were much smaller.

A reliable estimate of Afghan casualties is 3,000, reflecting the desperate nature of much of the fighting.

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E Battery Royal Horse Artillery escaping from the
overwhelming Afghan attack at the Battle of Maiwand.
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Regimental casualties:
E/B Battery, Royal Horse Artillery: 14 dead 13 wounded
3rd Queen’s Own (Bombay Cavalry) 27 dead 18 wounded
3rd Scinde Horse (Bombay Army) 15 dead 1 wounded
HM 66th Foot 286 dead 32 wounded
1st Grenadiers 366 dead 61 wounded
30th Bombay NI (Jacob’s Rifles) 241 dead 32 wounded
2nd Company Bombay Sappers and Miners 16 dead 6 wounded


Ex-private Nightingale of the 66th Foot shows his Afghan War medal to children in 1930

Follow-up: The disastrous battle led Ayub Khan to abandon his march on Ghuznee and lay siege to Kandahar instead. In spite of the losses at Maiwand the British and Indian garrison was sufficient to resist until the arrival of General Roberts with a force from Kabul and the final battle of the war.


Royal Horse Artillery on exercise in England

Regimental anecdotes and traditions:


Queen Victoria awarding the Afghan War Medal to Bobbie the dog, survivor of the Battle of Maiwand, and other members of the 66th Foot at Osborne House

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Sergeant Mullane, Royal Horse Artillery, winning the Victoria Cross by
saving a wounded gunner during the retreat from the attacking Afghans.
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That Day by Rudyard Kipling

(the poem Kipling wrote to commemorate the experience of the 66th Foot at the Battle of Maiwand).

It got beyond all orders an' it got beyond all 'ope;
It got to shammin' wounded an' retirin' from the 'alt.
'Ole companies was lookin' for the nearest road to slope;
It were just a bloomin' knock-out -- an' our fault!

Now there ain't no chorus 'ere to give,
Nor there ain't no band to play;
An' I wish I was dead 'fore I done what I did,
Or seen what I seed that day!

We was sick o' bein' punished, an' we let 'em know it, too;
An' a company-commander up an' 'it us with a sword,
An' some one shouted "'Ook it!" an' it come to sove-ki-poo,
An' we chucked our rifles from us -- O my Gawd!

There was thirty dead an' wounded on the ground we wouldn't keep --
No, there wasn't more than twenty when the front begun to go;
But, Christ! along the line o' flight they cut us up like sheep,
An' that was all we gained by doin' so.

I 'eard the knives be'ind me, but I dursn't face my man,
Nor I don't know where I went to, 'cause I didn't 'alt to see,
Till I 'eard a beggar squealin' out for quarter as 'e ran,
An' I thought I knew the voice an' -- it was me!

We was 'idin' under bedsteads more than 'arf a march away;
We was lyin' up like rabbits all about the countryside;
An' the major cursed 'is Maker 'cause 'e lived to see that day,
An' the colonel broke 'is sword acrost, an' cried.

We was rotten 'fore we started -- we was never disciplined;
We made it out a favour if an order was obeyed;
Yes, every little drummer 'ad 'is rights an' wrongs to mind,
So we had to pay for teachin' -- an' we paid!

The papers 'id it 'andsome, but you know the Army knows;
We was put to groomin' camels till the regiments withdrew,
An' they gave us each a medal for subduin' England's foes,
An' I 'ope you like my song -- because it's true!

An' there ain't no chorus 'ere to give,
Nor there ain't no band to play;
But I wish I was dead 'fore I done what I did,
Or seen what I seed that day!

References:
My God-Maiwand by Maxwell: an exhaustive authoritative account of the battle by a Gunner Officer.

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)