Once upon a Time in Afghanistan - The Battle of Ali Masjid in 1878

22 November 1878, on the Western end of the Khyber Pass, the Second Anglo-Afghan War began with the Battle of Ali Masjid.

CARNEHAN: Nobody’s going to weep their eyes out, at our demise.
DRAVOT: And who’d want ‘em to, anyway?
CARNEHAN: We haven’t made many good deeds to our credit.
DRAVOT: None to brag about.
CARNEHAN: But how many men have been wherewe’ve been and seen what we’ve seen…?
DRAVOT: Bloody few and that’s a fact!
CARNEHAN: Why, even now, I wouldn’t trade places with the Viceroy himself if it meant giving up my memories…
DRAVOT: Me neither.
CARNEHAN: Like the time the Highlanders were retreating down the hill at Ali Masjit and Pipe Major McCrimmon got his money bag shot off…
DRAVOT:… Seventeen and six he had in it—so back he goes after it without looking to see if that was all he’d lost…
CARNEHAN: — and then gets the bloody Victoria Cross because the Highlanders turned about and followed him…
DRAVOT:—Good thing for the Afghans it wasn’t a quid or he’d have run ‘em back all the way to Kabul!… (John Huston “The Man Who Would Be King“)

Men of the 51st King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry after the Battle, photographed by John Burke on 22 November 1878.

The dangers of a second Crimean War with the British intervening in yet another Russo-Turkish Conflict were avoided at the Congress of Berlin, even if they had, by Jingo, the ships, the men and the money, too, as the crowds put it in London pubs and music halls earlier that year, giving birth to the term “Jingoism”. The Great Game of the British and Russians over dominance in Central Asia and finally India was in full play, though, and when Sher Ali Khan of Afghanistan, son of Dost Mohammed who caused the annihilation of John Company’s “Army of the Indus” during the First Afghan War in 1842, allowed a Russian embassy in Kabul but refused the British, the storm was brewing to a full-scale war. This time, Lord Lytton, Viceroy of British India, was far better prepared than his predecessor Auckland 35 years before, they knew what to expect from fighting in Afghanistan – at least on a strategic level. On November 21st, the 16.000 men of Sir Samuel Browne’s Peshawar Valley Field Force, 4 British and Indian infantry, a cavalry and an artillery brigade, entered the Khyber, while Stewart’s Kandahar Field Force crossed into the Bolan Pass with 13.000 and Roberts’ Kurram Valley Force marched to occupy the Peiwar Kotal Pass, Sam Browne’s men were the first who met resistance at the fortress of Ali Masjid.

"Dignity & Impudence" - John Burke's 1878 photograph an elephant and mule battery during the Second Anglo-Afghan War

Micromanagement of the invasion of Afghanistan was not quite as advanced as the strategic planning, even though Sam Browne was an experienced commander. The men under Brigadier-General J. A. Tytler’s command, designated to lead the attack on Ali Masjid, got lost, the unprotected baggage train with the water supplies arrived too late and troops were delayed by details that could have proven decisive in battle, such as the Leicestershire Regiment wearing puttees and the cloth tightening around their calves in the moist heat, giving the men cramps and echoes in the pass that were mistaken for heavy artillery fire, causing the setup of useless defensive positions. At 10 o’clock in the morning, the battle began, with the British trying to get the command of the ridges surrounding the fortress and the Afghans stubbornly defending it. In the afternoon, at least mountain and horse artillery could be brought into position, opening fire on the fortress itself, silencing the Afghan guns until sunset. Too late to bring in the infantry for a charge, the British withdrew and on the next morning Lt Chisholme of the 9th Lancers reconnoitering the situation reported that the Afghan defenders had quitted the fortress. The Battle of Ali Masjid was over.

Ali Masjid, the day after the battle - another photograph by John Burke

Sam Browne’s Peshawar Valley Field Force marched through the Khyber and occupied Jalalabad later in November, wintering there while the two other columns achieved their strategic objectives as well, occupying the larger part of Afghanistan during the following - Sher Ali Khan fled to Russia and asked for support that didn’t come. He died in 1879, leaving the throne to his son Mohammad Yaqub Khan and finally, after several uprisings and bloody battles, at Maiwand and Kandahar, to the Afghan Prince Charlie, Mohammad Ayub Khan, who ratified the treaty of Gandamak, ceding parts of Afghanistan to British India and giving the British control of Afghan foreign policy. Troops left Afghanistan in 1880, since maintaining them in the region was simply too costly, in lives, supplies and money. Sam Browne stuck in memory with the invention of his famous uniform belt that is worn to this day.

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The tune known as "MacDermott’s War Song", giving rise to the term Jingoism and alluded at in the first paragraph can be seen here, performed by the British actor Robin Hunter (1929 – 2004) in quite a music hall atmosphere: