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The Battle of Maiwand was one of Britain’s cruelly noblest defeats

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

This edited article about the Second Afghan War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Battle of Maiwand, picture, image, illustration

The Afghans seized their chance to smash the British which spelled disaster for the valiant men of the 66th at Maiwand, by Graham Coton

There were only eleven of them left alive in the ruins of the walled garden, two officers and nine men, and in the end they charged out in a defiantly hopeless last attack on the hundreds of Afghans who surrounded them. When total exhaustion and their wounds brought them to a halt, they formed a miniature square and fired at the enemy until the last of them fell dead. Then and only then did the tribesmen close in and overrun the tiny, blood-stained position.

The battle of Maiwand, fought on July 27, 1880, was not yet over, but this could only be a matter of time. When it finally ended, a nightmare retreat began. The six companies of the 66th Regiment (later the Royal Berkshire Regiment) had started out with 19 officers and 427 other ranks. After the battle they had lost 10 officers and 275 men killed and 2 officers and 31 wounded. It was a catastrophe, but a glorious one, even though no battle honours could be awarded for a defeat. And the fact that the 66th won no Victoria Crosses was easily explained. There were no senior officers left alive to recommend any. The rest of the army and the people of the Empire were in no doubt about the gallantry displayed, and the Commander-in-Chief in India, General Primrose, wrote in his official despatch that “history does not afford any grander or finer instance of gallantry to Queen and Country than that displayed by the 66th. . . .”

Maiwand! Except in Berkshire and among military history enthusiasts, few people remember it today, though readers who know their Sherlock Holmes stories well, will recall that on the very first page of the first Holmes book of all, “A Study in Scarlet,” the good Doctor Watson reveals that he was wounded in the shoulder when serving with the Berkshires at Maiwand.

In the 19th century, the British were always suspicious of Russian designs in Afghanistan, leading to a threat to India. Apart from this supposed danger, they were often engaged in fierce skirmishes along the North-West Frontier with the wild tribesmen whose favourite sport was fighting. The events leading up to the disaster at Maiwand began in 1879. The British envoy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, was murdered and this triggered off an invasion, which led to the deposition of the Emir and his replacement by a pro-British ruler. The Berkshires arrived in Afghanistan and headed for the city of Kandahar 320 miles from Kabul, only to find that they had missed all the action. Or so it seemed.

In July 1880, the brother of the deposed Emir was reported to be heading for Kandahar with a small army, hoping to reconquer the kingdom. His name was Ayub Khan. A brigade under General Burroughs left Kandahar to cut him and his army off. It was some 2,500 strong and consisted of two Indian cavalry and two Indian infantry regiments, six companies of the 66th, a Royal Horse Artillery battery and some other guns, also a large baggage train under the command of Major Ready of the 66th, with a company from the regiment as escort.

After a 45-mile march, the troops approached a village called Maiwand beside a steep-sided, dry watercourse. Expecting a small enemy force to appear at any moment, they were suddenly stunned to see a vast army ahead of them on the plain, making for Kandahar.

It was later found that there were some 30,000 of them, 20,000 being guerrillas, many of whom were ferocious religious fanatics called Ghazis. There were also 4,000 cavalry and 8,000 infantry, plus 30 guns. Even the stoutest British hearts must have missed a beat at the sight of so gigantic a force.

Hoping to halt them, even if he could hardly destroy them, Burroughs first sent two guns to the left with cavalry support as a diversion, while he moved his men across the watercourse. This is easier to write than it was to do, for its sides were as much as 20 feet deep; but the operation went smoothly, and soon the entire force, apart from the baggage train which remained in the watercourse, was lined up on the plain.

The Afghans did not hesitate, for here was a chance to smash the British before moving on to Kandahar, then Kabul. Cavalry swept round the flanks of Burroughs’ forces, but he ordered them to fall back until they were in a formation like a shallow “V” facing the enemy. So far the honours were even, but not for long. Afghan marksmen and artillery began to cause heavy casualties and the infantry took to ground, while snipers tried to pick off the Afghan gunners. But the cavalry suffered severely by being unable to take cover, and some of the British gunners ran out of ammunition.

Ayub Khan ordered his artillery to stop firing and sent his men forward. At once the British stood up and created havoc amongst the advancing hordes, scores being killed by their Martini-Henry rifles. The fire of the 66th was particularly devastating, and grapeshot from the artillery added to the death toll.

There was a pause, then the Afghans came on again, concentrating on the Indian troops. This was the key moment of the battle, for the Indians broke instead of standing up to the terrible Ghazis in hand-to-hand combat. As they fled, they shattered the line of the 66th. Two guns were taken by the Afghans and the rest only just escaped.

The cavalry had been held in reserve, but chose this moment to refuse to advance, so the 66th were left on their own, and fought in small, compact squares, while beginning to retreat towards the watercourse. Their wounded had to be left behind to await a slow death at the hands of Afghan torturers.

The survivors crossed the watercourse and retreated slowly towards the houses and gardens where stands might be made. The Queen’s Colour of the Regiment was passed from hand to hand as a succession of bearers of it fell dying or dead. All the fierce loyalty and comradeship of British county regiments at their finest was shown that day. Typical was the behaviour of the regiment’s big drummer who refused to abandon the wounded adjutant, standing over him and bringing down tribesman after tribesman with rifle and bayonet until the howling tidal wave of Afghans flowed over him.

Now it was that some 100 men took over a walled garden which was at once surrounded by the Ghazis. The Regimental Colour was there, the last to hold it aloft being a young Sergeant-Major called Cuppage until he, too, died. There was no one to take it from him, for now there were just the heroic eleven left alive until they also perished.

Everywhere else confusion reigned. The Indians never recovered from the Afghan attack, though on so many other bloody fields they were a match for any troops sent against them, and were among the finest troops ever to serve the British Crown. The baggage train, what was left of it, was a shambles, but its commander, Major Ready, helped by the fact that many Afghans were busy plundering, managed to get some men and equipment away to safety. On the retreat, Afghan civilians, delighted at the turn of events, fired from houses, and behind walls at the survivors, who could not even get water until midday of the following day. At the river they reached, most of the guns became stuck in the mud and had to be spiked and abandoned. Just as it seemed that there would be no survivors, a relief column arrived and led the exhausted men back to Kandahar.

To Kandahar also came Sergeant Kelly’s mongrel Bobbie, who had been wounded in the fighting, but, like his master, lived to fight another day. Later, Queen Victoria gave him the Afghan Medal, but this most famous of mascots was run over soon after the honour by a hansom cab. He is now in a glass case in the regimental museum.

The British soon revenged Maiwand, General Roberts leading 10,000 Indian and British troops in a 320 mile march from Kabul to Kandahar in only 23 days. Meanwhile, the survivors of the glorious 66th had returned home to the peace and quiet of the Isle of Wight.

No one had admired their conduct more than their Afghan enemies, to whom courage was the greatest of all virtues. In happier times they recalled the fight to other Britons who visited them more peacefully. Such a defeat was a matter of pride, not shame.

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