“All is well in the Kabul Embassy." - The Massacre of Sir Louis Cavagnari in Kabul in 1879

3 September 1879, 135 years ago, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the embassy of Sir Louis Cavagnari in Kabul was massacred by mutinous Afghan troops.
“All is well in the Kabul Embassy." (Cavagnari’s last telegram to Lord Lytton on 2 September 1879)

A group of the Queen's Own Corps of Guides in Afghanistan, taken in 1880

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. In 1878, the Second Anglo-Afghan War broke out and this time, Lord Lytton, Viceroy of British India, was far better prepared than his predecessor Auckland had been 35 years before. They knew what to expect from fighting in Afghanistan – at least on a strategic level. Micromanagement of the invasion of Afghanistan was not quite as advanced as the strategic planning, though, nevertheless, Sir Sam Browne defeated the Afghans at Ali Masjid on the Western end of the Khyber Pass, a close run thing, by all accounts. But the road to Kabul was open and large parts of Afghanistan were occupied. Sher Ali Khan fled to Russia and asked for support that didn’t come. He died in February 1879, leaving the throne to his son Mohammad Yaqub Khan and the British envoy, Sir Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari forced the Treaty of Gandamak down the successor’s throat, satisfying the British interests in Afghanistan for the moment.

Mohammad Yaqub Khan with British officers in May of 1879, (Major Cavagnari second from left, Amir Yakub Khan in the centre, the tall Daoud Shah next to the Amir, and Jenkyns and Habibullah Moustafi at extreme left and right)

The Treaty of Gandamak was signed on May 26th and four weeks later, the British embassy, escorted by 75 men of Queen’s Own Corps of Guides under Lieutenant Walter Hamilton arrived in Kabul. They chose a compound inside the looming fortress of Bala Hissar as their residency, something of an ill omen, since Macnaghten, the former political agent, murdered by Afghan tribesmen in 1841, had resided there and old General Elphinstone’s completely botched eviction of Kabul in the shadow of the old citadel ending in a disaster for his Army of the Indus in the snow at Gandamak, the very place where the treaty had now been signed, was well remembered on both sides. And Cavagnari was at least as hated by the locals as Macnaghten was and had about the same cross eye for the political realities and necessities of his mission as his predecessor had. An issue over the payment of Mohammad Yaqub Khan’s own soldiery ended in a riot in front of the Bala Hissar, soon an armed mob had formed and Cavagnari, who tried to lord it over the assembled Herati soldiers and disperse them became the first casualty. A musket ball hit him in the head, but he was still able to lead a bayonet charge to push at least those out who had already occupied the courtyard of the allegedly impregnable fortress. He died soon after and Lt Hamilton assumed command over the 75 sowars and sepoys of the Guides. By noon, the Bala Hissar was on fire, only half of his men were still able to fight the 2,000 Afghans who, in the meanwhile, had brought two pieces of field artillery in position. While leading several assaults to capture or at least disable these guns, Hamilton was overwhelmed and killed after emptying his revolver, covering the retreat of five of his sepoys. The Guides literally fought to the last man and all resistance ceased after a last charge out of the Bala Hissar’s compound, led by Jemadar (a platoon leader in the British Indian Army) Jewand Singh and the twelve still living Guides were cut up, not before the Jemadar had killed 8 of his assailants himself. After eight bloody hours, the Siege of the Residency was over. 

92nd Highlanders and 2nd Gurkhas storming the Gaudi Mullah Sahibdad at Kandahar 1 September 1880, as imagined by Richard Caton Woodville around 1900

What followed was another year of brutal war, when the Kabul Field Force under Sir Frederick Roberts marched over the Shutgardan Pass into Central Afghanistan to avenge the death of Cavagnari and the Guides, Kabul was occupied again in October 1879, and finally, after several uprisings and bloody battles, at Maiwand and Kandahar, Cavagnari’s treaty was again enforced, Mohammad Ayub Khan became something of an Afghan Bonny Prince Charlie and British troops finally left Afghanistan in 1880, since maintaining them in the region was simply too costly, in lives, supplies and money.

And more about the Siege of the British Residency in 1879 on: