"That Day" - The Battle of Maiwand

27 July 1880, 45 miles west of Kandahar during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, an Anglo-Indian army under Brigadier General George Burrows was cut up by Afghan forces under Mohammad Ayub Khan at the Battle of Maiwand.

“Good Luck to you. It’s all up with the Bally Old Berkshires” (a private of the 66th Berkshire Regiment of Foot to the teams of E Battery / B Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery, galloping away)



Richard Caton Woodville (1856 - 1927): "Maiwand: Saving the Guns" (1883)




Graveyard of Empires. Afghanistan had acquired a somewhat colourful reputation over the centuries. However, while a manageable number of empires was actually buried there, the lay of the land and the doughty warriors she bred proved to be a tough nut to crack for conquerors from the days of the Persian Empire 2,500 years ago to this day. And Afghanistan’s geostrategic position on the crossing between the Middle East, Central Asia and India drew them like flies. During the 19th century though, after Afghanistan’s very own attempt at empire building had ended in 1823, the Emirate with its capital in Kabul that succeeded Ahmad Shah Durrani’s kingdom played more or less the role of a buffer state in the Great Game between the Tsars and British India. A first attempt to bring Afghanistan completely under the heel of the Raj and nip Russian incursions into the Hindu Kush in the bud famously failed miserably when Elphinstone’s Army of the Indus was cut to pieces in the passes near Gandamak during the infamous Kabul retreat of 1842. Thirty-five years later, open conflict between Russia and Great Britain was avoided at the Congress of Berlin, but a proxy war broke out in Afghanistan when Sher Ali Khan allowed an embassy of the Tsar in Kabul and turned the ambassadors of the Viceroy back to Calcutta at the border. The next round of Lord Lytton’s representatives at the Khyber Pass were the Generals Frederick Roberts, Donald Stewart and Sam Browne, accompanied by an army 50,000 strong and made up from the creme of the Bengal, Marahti, Baluchi, Punjabi, Sikh and Gurkha troops of British India, bolstered by British Army regiments, arranged in three marching columns, bent on invasion. Sher Ali Khan went to Moscow with a plea for help that fell on deaf ears. He returned to Afghanistan, died in Mazar-i-Sharif in February 1879 to be succeeded by his son Mohammad Yaqub Khan while the British had achieved their military goals in a couple of hard-fought actions and Sir Louis Cavagnari, the envoy of the Queen, met the new emir in Gandamak to settle the casus belli: establishing a British embassy in Kabul. “All is well in the Kabul embassy”, read Cavagnari’s last telegram to Lytton in the September of the year, a few hours before he, his escort and his staff were massacred in an uprising of the locals who didn’t quite accept the emir’s ceding of border territories to the Raj and letting the British into Kabul. The Second Anglo-Afghan War went into its second phase. Kabul was occupied by “Bobs” Roberts after defeating an Afghan army at Charasiab four weeks later and promptly, Bobs had his hands full with getting besieged by the locals at the Sherpur Cantonment. And then, Ayub Khan, Mohammad Yaqub’s younger brother and lord of Herat threatened Kandahar on the border of British India, some 300 miles to the southwest. 



Peter Archer's (1946- ) imagination of the last moments of the 11 survivors of the 66th in the garden outside of Khig, including Bobbie the Dog * 


“With a drop of my sweetheart's blood, / Shed in defence of the Motherland, / Will I put a beauty spot on my forehead, / Such as would put to shame the rose in the garden”, young Malalai sang. It was her wedding day and both her father and her fiancée had already fallen and when the Afghan colour-bearer was shot and the flag fell, she used her veil to encourage Ayub Khan’s regulars and the thousands of Ghazis to charge into the British lines. The veil became her winding sheet, she was shot and became a national heroine, revered in Afghanistan and beyond to this day. Brigadier George Burrows and his 2,500 infantry, artillery and cavalry were sent to counter Ayub Khan in the beginning of July and they had already suffered a major drawback before the battle even began. 6,000 Kandahari regulars, mobilised by their pro-British Wali to support the defence of the province, had mutinied and went over to join Ayub Khan who had now up to 25,000 or, at the least, 12,000 men at his disposal, most of them irregulars, Ghazis, but combined with his state-of-the-art artillery park more than a match for the heavily outnumbered British. Burrows wouldn’t believe the numbers to the last moment, though, made a mess out of breaking camp and getting his army underway on the morning of the battle to find himself out in the open of a dusty plain, in scorching heat, with Ayub Khan’s army approaching from all sides from the hills. E Battery / B Brigade of the Royal Horse Artillery opened up on the enemy, far too deep out in the open, Burrow’s infantry hurried to cover the guns, the Afghans returned fire and inflicted considerable casualties on the 1st Bombay N.I. Grenadiers on the British left, while the 66th Berkshires in the centre and 30th Bombay N.I., known as Jacob’s Rifles, on the right, found at least some cover on the field. From the Afghan shells. Not from the sun, though, and after an artillery duel of three hours, the Afghans began to close in. The 30th Bombay’s Sniders and the 66th’s Martini-Henrys held them for a moment, forced them even to retreat, Ayub Khan’s artillery advanced while the RHA ran short of shells and then the 1st Bombays broke under a massed cavalry and infantry charge, the battle was lost and the slaughter began. The Bombay Grenadiers on the right ran next and the lines of the 66th dissolved, leaving the Berkshires to defend themselves in small groups retreating in the chaos. The RHA’s guns fired until the charging Afghans were only a couple of yards away, limbered up and ran, four teams even made it away, one was captured and by then, what was left of Burrow’s army was in an all-out rout. The remnants of the left wing fled towards the village of Mundabad, some 100 survivors of the 66th and the Grenadiers ended up a ravine in an orchard on the outskirts of a village called Khig, Malalai’s birthplace. They made a stand there, fired until they ran out of ammunition, the last 11 survivors charged out in the open with their bayonets and were shot down.



The Queen awarding Bobbie the Dog and other survivors of the 66th with the Afghan War campaign medal at Osborne House


Almost half of Burrows' army was killed at Maiwand, the rest made its 45-mile retreat to Kandahar. Ayub Khan’s cavalry was just to busy plundering the British baggage train and refrained from pursuing the broken Anglo-British. The Afghan casualties amounted to 3,000 dead and Ayub Khan contented himself with besieging Kandahar, giving Roberts the time to lead his relief force from Kabul over 320 miles straight through Afghanistan in just four weeks. Ayub Khan was soundly defeated on 1 September and the Second Anglo-Afghan War was over. Maiwand, however, left a sound impression on the Victorian mind. From Bobbie the Dog, the regimental mascot of the 66th, who survived the last stand at Khig and the war and was awarded by the Queen with the Afghan War campaign medal, to the sheer disbelief of another native force trashing the world’s best infantry, just a year after Isandlwana. And there was the 66th’s surgeon, wounded in the shoulder by a Jezail bullet at Maiwand, who left the Army to set up shop at 221B Baker Street, St, Marylebone, London NW1, one Dr John H. Watson. But it was Rudyard Kipling, who summed it up, “That Day”, in his Barrack-Room Ballads:

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

And more about the Battle of Maiwand on: