General Roberts in Afghanistan

’Twas in the year of 1878, and. the winter had set in,
Lord Roberts and the British Army their march did begin,
On their way to Afghanistan to a place called Cabul;
And the weather was bitter cold and the rivers swollen and full.

And the enemy were posted high up amongst the hills,
And when they saw the British, with fear their blood thrills;
The savages were camped on the hillsides in war array,
And occupying a strong position which before the British lay.

And viewed from the front their position was impregnable,
But Lord Roberts was a general of great skill;
Therefore to surprise the enemy he thought it was right,
To march upon the enemy in the dead of night.

Then the men were mustered without delay,
And each man of them was eager for the fray;
And in the silent darkness they felt no dismay,
And to attack the enemy they marched boldly away.

And on they marched bravely without fear or doubt,
And about daybreak the challenge of an Afghan sentinel rang out,
And echoed from rock to rock on the frosty biting air;
But the challenge didn’t the British scare.

Then the Highlanders attacked them left and right,
And oh! it was a gorgeous and an inspiring sight;
For a fierce hand to hand struggle raged for a time,
While the pibrochs skirled aloud, oh! the scene was sublime.

Then the Ghoorkas did the Afghans fiercely attack,
And at every point and turning they were driven back;
And a fierce hand to hand struggle raged for a time,
While in the morning sunshine the British bayonets did shine.

And around the ridge or knoll the battle raged for three hours,
And British bullets fell amongst them in showers;
For Captain Kelso brought us his mountain battery,
And sent his shells right into the camp of the enemy,
Then the left of the Afghans was turned, and began to flee.

Meanwhile, on the enemy’s strong position Lord Roberts launched an attack,
And from their position they could hardly be driven back
Because the Afghans were hid amongst the woods and hills,
Still with undaunted courage, the British blood thrills.

And the Afghans pressed the British hotly, but they didn’t give way,
For the 8th Ghoorkas and the 72nd kept them at bay;
And the mountain guns shells upon them did fire,
Then the 8th Punjaub, bounding up the heights, made them retire.

Then Major White seized a rifle from one of his men and did retire,
And levelled the piece fearlessly and did fire;
And with a steady and well-timed shot
He shot the Afghan leader dead on the spot.

Then the British with a wild cheer dashed, at them,
And on each side around they did them hem;
And at the bayonet charge they drove them down the hill,
And in hundreds they did them kill.

Then in a confused mass they fled down the opposite side of the hill
In hundreds,driven by sheer force sore against their will;
And helter-skelter they did run,
For all their positions were carried and the victory won.

Then on the 8th of August again Lord Roberts’ march began
For to fight the rebel Ayoob Khan;
And with an army about seven thousand strong
On his way to Candahar he fearlessly marched along.

And the battle that followed at Candahar was a complete victory,
And Lord Roberts’ march to Candahar stands unrivalled in history;
And let’s thank God that sent Lord Roberts to conquer Ayoob Khan,
For from that time there’s been no more war in Afghanistan.

Success to Lord Roberts; he’s a very brave man,
For he conquered the Afghans in Afghanistan,
With an army about seven thousand strong,
He spread death and desolation all along.

The Afghan War

(By Eastern Company’s Cable)

(From Our Correspondent)

Peiwar Pass, Dec. 5

After careful reconnoissances, General Roberts considered a direct attack on the Peiwar Pass impracticable, and determined to turn the position, via Peiwar and Spin Gawi Pass. The turning party, consisting of the 29th Punjab Infantry, the 5th Ghoorkhas, and the mountain guns, under Colonel Gordon, and the 72d Highlanders, 2d Punjab Infantry, and 23d Pioneers, under General Thelwall, and four guns of Field Artillery, the whole under General Roberts were under arms at 10 p.m. on the 1st of December. A rough march through the whole night brought the leading brigade just before dawn to a strong barricade of the enemy in the pass. The leading company of Ghoorkas, under Major Fitzhugh and Captain Cook, dashed at the place, supported by one company of the 72d, and carried it in splendid style. The advance continued to the south-west, the enemy falling back from position after position, till by 10 a.m. we had only one more height to crown to reach the pass. This was defended with great determination by the enemy, whose position was very strong, and two attempts were repulsed.

At 3 p.m., after the men had rested, a further turning movement was begun, which resulted in our getting completely in the rear of the fort on the pass. Before this could be completely developed the enemy fled in the greatest confusion, leaving 18 guns behind. Meantime, the 8th Foot, supported by six guns, had gradually reached the spur of the right of the pass and crowned the height.

About 4 p.m., finding the place vacated, the turning force bivouacked in the rear of the fort on the hill, 9,000ft. high. The 12th Bengal Cavalry pursued for a short distance, but, darkness coming on, soon returned to the position taken, which was one of extraordinary strength.

The whole engagement was a brilliant success, considering the small number of troops under General Roberts.

Major Anderson, 23d Pioneers, and Captain Kelso, Punjab Mountain Battery, were killed; Brigadier-General Cobbe and Lieutenant Munroe, 72d Highlanders, wounded; neither seriously. About 80 men were killed and wounded.

The troops acted splendidly, especially the Ghoorkas and the Highlanders.

It is reported that the heights were reinforced on the 1st of December by three fresh regiments from Khushi.

There is no authentic news of the enemy’s loss.

One point deserves special notice- viz. the accuracy with which the turning force arrived at its destination. On this so much depended.

The Times, 7th December 1878


The Second Anglo-Afghan War was an episode in the “Great Game” between Britain and Russia for control of India’s northwest frontier. As the Russian Empire slowly stretched across Central Asia during the nineteenth century, Britain feared that it might one day sweep through Afghanistan and on to the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire.

When, in 1878, the Russians established a diplomatic mission in Kabul those fears seemed a good deal closer. When a proposed British mission was turned away at the border, it was a cause for war.

40,000 British and Indian troops were gathered around Afghanistan’s southern and eastern borders in order to teach the Afghans a rough lesson in diplomacy. Three separate columns would launch attacks into the nation’s interior: one advancing from Quetta towards Kandahar, one up the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad, and one along the Kurram Valley towards Kabul.

This last force was placed under the command of Major General Sir Frederick Roberts VC. Roberts was a promising officer who had been awarded the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny and served with distinction in Africa. This would be his first independent command.

The task he faced was a difficult one. The Kurram valley stretched 60 miles into enemy territory, surrounded by wooded mountains, towards the Peiwar Kotal pass. He would have to face rough country, winter weather, and a local population who, whilst initially friendly, would soon turn on him in the event of a military reverse.

The force at his disposal gave him problems too. Four of the native regiments which made up the bulk of his force were predominately muslim, Roberts had grave doubts on whether they could be relied upon in a fight against others of the same faith. His main European unit, a battalion of the 8th Regiment, was inexperienced  and suffering badly from an outbreak of fever. A plea to headquarters won him the reinforcement of a few Sikh units and a wing of the veteran 72nd (Seaforth) highlanders. That would have to do.

On 21st November 1878, Roberts’ force commenced its march into the Kurram valley. Initially, things went well: the rocky terrain and lack of roads presented great difficulties to the Anglo-Indian soldiers, but the enemy were nowhere to be seen. The fort of Kurram was abandoned without a fight, and Roberts pusued its garrison towards Peiwar Kotal at the head of the valley. Here, however, the Afghans were determined to make a stand.

Map showing march of General Roberts to Peiwar Kotal (Nov 28 to Dec 1, 1878)

Sher Ali, the Afghan ruler, had posted his best general and 4,000 men at the head of the pass to block the invader. Writing about the campaign 20 years later, Roberts recalled his dismay at the strength of the Afghan defenses:

It was, indeed, a formidable position—a great deal more formidable than I had expected—on the summit of a mountain rising abruptly 2,000 feet above us, and only approachable by a narrow, steep, and rugged path, flanked on either side by precipitous spurs jutting out like huge bastions, from which an overwhelming fire could be brought to bear on the assailants. The mountain on the enemy’s right did not look much more promising for moving troops, and I could only hope that a way might be found on their left by which their flank could be turned. The country, however, in that direction was screened from view by spurs covered with dense forests of deodar.

I confess to a feeling very nearly akin to despair when I gazed at the apparently impregnable position towering above us, occupied, as I could discern through my telescope, by crowds of soldiers and a large number of guns.

Roberts quickly drew his forces out of range and camped facing the enemy while he pondered his next move. Some cautious scouting lead him to come up with a bold plan. By detaching part of his force to climb a ridge to the north, he could reach a secondary pass – the Spingawi Kotal – from where the main Afghan position could be outflanked. It was a risky undertaking: if the Afghans got wind of it they could sweep down and destroy his forces in detail. For this reason, he shared his plan with just two of his officers whilst giving all outward show of preparing for a frontal assault.

At 10pm on 1st December 1878, 2,200 of Roberts’ best troops filed out of the camp in complete silence, with the General himself in command. The climb to the Spingawi Kotal was long and difficult, with the column stumbling over the rough country in the darkness.

Roberts felt that the pace of the advance was too slow, and suspected his leading regiment – the largely muslim 29th Punjab – of deliberately dragging its feet. Those suspicions were confirmed when a few Indian soldiers fired warning shots to alert the enemy. Amazingly, the warning went unheeded, and after a few tense moments Roberts decided to rearrange his column, calling the elite 5th Ghurka Rifles and the highlanders to the fore:

On the Gurkhas coming up, I told Major Fitz-Hugh, who commanded them, that the moment he reached the foot of the kotal, he must front form company, fix bayonets, and charge up the slope without waiting for further orders.

Soon afterwards, and just as the first streak of dawn proclaimed the approach of day, the enemy became aware of our presence, and fired into us, when instantly I heard Fitz-Hugh give the word to charge. Brownlow, at the head of his Highlanders, dashed forward in support, and two guns of the Mountain battery coming up at the moment, I ordered its Commandant, Captain Kelso, to come into action as soon as he could find a position.

The unfortunate Kelso fell, shot dead, a moment later – but the Afghan position was quickly captured. Taken completely by surprise, the Afghans barely had time to get a few shots off before the Ghurkas and Highlanders were upon them. Having consolidated his position on the Spingawi Kotal, Roberts could turn his attention to the Peiwar Kotal from which he was still separated by a mile-long wooded ridge.

Throughout the morning, Roberts made steady progress towards his goal – clearing the woods of the enemy and linking up with a force sent from the valley below. However, by midday the battle had reached a stalemate with the two sides facing eachother across a ravine. Once again, Roberts looked for a flanking manoeuvre – shifting to the right he sent his forces into the valley to threaten the Afghan rear.

For the Afghans, already shaken by the unexpected appearance of the enemy on their flank that morning, this threat to their line of retreat was the final straw. An initially orderly withdrawal became a rout, as the Afghan soldiers streamed down the track to safety, pursued by the 12th Bengal Cavalry. Roberts and his men were exhausted:

Night overtook us before we could reach the kotal, and as everyone was thoroughly tired out, having been hard at work since 10 p.m. the night before, with but little food, I thought it better to bivouac where we were, on the southern slope of the Sika Ram mountain. It was hardly a pleasant experience lying on the ground without even cloaks at an elevation of 9,000 feet, and with the thermometer marking twenty degrees of frost; but spite of cold and hunger, thoroughly content with the day’s work, and with my mind at rest, I slept as soundly as I had ever done in the most luxurious quarters, and I think others did the same. At any rate, no one that I could hear of suffered from that night’s exposure.

The battle had been won at a cost of 20 men killed and 75 wounded; the Afghans lost a total of about 200 killed and wounded. When the news reached home, Roberts received the thanks of Parliament and even a note from Queen Victoria herself:

I have received the news of the decisive victory of General Roberts, and the splendid behaviour of my brave soldiers, with pride and satisfaction, though I must ever deplore the unavoidable loss of life. Pray inquire after the wounded in my name. May we continue to receive good news.

A further advance towards Kabul proved impractical in the winter weather, so Roberts’ men settled down to occupy the Peiwar Kotal position until the spring. However, the damage to the Afghan cause was done. Having suffered military defeats on all fronts, Sher Ali fled to seek aid from the Russians. When such aid was not forthcoming, he died in despair on 21st February 1879.

His son and successor, Yakub Khan, immediately sued for peace. A treaty was signed at Gandamak in May, and Roberts was able to personally escort the new British Ambassador to Kabul two months later. His job done, he looked forward to some well-earned leave back in England.

Six weeks later he was back on the road to the Afghan capital. The British Embassy, established at such cost in human lives, had been massacred by the Kabul mob while Yakub Khan stood by and did nothing. This time there was no resistance to his advance, and he quickly found himself marching into Kabul accompanied by Yakub Khan who promptly abdicated. Roberts was “King of Kabul” until a successor could be found. His throne was to prove a very uncomfortable one.

In November, facing mounting Afghan resistance and deeming Kabul itself indefensible, Roberts moved to a defensive camp outside the city. Here he was besieged and attacked by Afghan forces, but drove them off with appalling losses.

By the summer of 1880, peace seemed to be returning to the country. A new Amir had been selected – Sher Ali’s nephew Abdur Rahman – and Roberts was able to hand control of Kabul over to General Stewart, hoping once more to secure some leave. But there was still one more act to play in this drama.

On 27th July 1880, a British force under General Burrows was heavily defeated at Maiwand by the forces of Ayub Khan, Yakub Khan’s brother. The British Garrison at nearby Kandahar was swiftly besieged and sent frantic messages to Kabul asking for help. Roberts was given the task of coming to their relief.

The job was almost impossible. There was 300 miles of rugged, hostile country to cross, in scorching temperatures that dropped below freezing at night, with little access to food or water along the way. The march would have to be conducted as swiftly as possible, as nobody knew how long the Kandahar garrison could hold out.

Roberts took to his mission with gusto. 9,900 of the best soldiers available were selected and set on the road with a bare minimum of kit. No wheeled transport or artillery would accompany the column and they would have to secure supplies as they marched. The operation was a shining example of what Queen Victoria’s “beggars in red” were capable of. Marching as many as 20 miles a day, they covered the distance in three weeks – enduring heat, cold, thirst and bandit attacks on the way. Ayub Khan withdrew from Kandahar (which, it later transpired, was never in serious danger anyway) and was defeated in battle by Roberts on 1st September.

The war was over, and Roberts was finally able to go home – which he did to a hero’s welcome and the title of Lord Roberts of Kandahar.

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