Afghan and Northwest Border Wars

1834 to 1897
Afghans, Border Tribes — versus — British

Afghan Tribal Wars — 1834-1837      First Afghan War — 1839-1842     
Scinde Campaign — 1843      Second Afghan War — 1878-1880     
Chitral and Tirah Campaigns — 1895-1897     

Second Afghan War
By the time Britain fought two wars against Afghanistan, she had nearly the entire Indian subcontinent under her control. By pushing her borders all the way to the northwest, British territory now bordered on high mountains filled with wild hill tribes. In an open field, no army could stand against her, but the mountain were dangerous terrain, even for the most powerful empire in the world. The First Afghan war resulted it the greatest slaughter of a British army in Imperial history, and the second also involved some terrible losses. To make matters more humiliating still, both resulted from foreign policy blunders, that in retrospect, could likely have been avoided. The ongoing battles with the hill tribes however, of which only a few are mentioned here, were both incessant and unavoidable. Mountain tribes from central Asia had been plundering the lowlands of the Indus valley since time immortal, and Britain inherited the border wars when she annexed the Punjab and other regions to the far north of India.

Afghan Tribal Wars : 1834-1837

The political situation in Afghanistan, in the years prior to the first Anglo-Afghan war require some explanation. A hereditary prince named Shuja Shah was driven from the throne in 1809, and spent 20 years in exile in India, since as king, he had been an ally of the British government. In 1833 he tried to regain the throne by marching an army through Punjab, (now Pakistan), the northern region in India closest to Afghanistan. In return for some help from the King of Punjab, he promised away the region of Peshawar, which lies north of the of Punjab, but was part of the Afghan kingdom. Shuja was defeated in his attempt to reclaim the throne of Afghanistan, but Peshawar fell under the control of the Punjab anyway. Dost Mohammad, the young Afghan prince who had defeated Shuja, requested Britain's help to regain his territory but Britain refused to get involved. Meanwhile, the Russian ambassador made overtures to Dost Mohammad, which alarmed Britain in the extreme, since the Russian empire was expanding its reach all over Asia during this time. This was the situation as it existed at the time Britain began a series of serious missteps in the region.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Kandahar (Afghan Tribal-Wars ) Dost Mahomed victory
Fought July 29, 1834, when Shah Sujah, the expelled Amir of Afghanistan, attempted to take the city. His successor, Dost Mahomed, and Kohandil Khan sallied forth at the head of their troops, and totally defeated Shah Sujah, dispersing his followers.
Siege of Herat (Perso-Afghan Wars ) Afghans victory
On November 22, 1837, Mohamed, Shah of Persia, laid siege to the city, which was held by an Afghan garrison, under Yar Mohamed. After a somewhat desultory siege, an attempt was made to storm the place, June 24, 1838, when the Persians were repulsed with a loss of 1,700 men. From this time a tacit armistice existed till September 9, when the Shah withdrew his army.

Short Biography
Dost Muhammed Afghan ruler during the first Anglo-Afghan War
Shuja Shah Deposed King of Afghanistan, restored to the throne by the British.
Ranjit Singh Sikh emperor of the Punjab. Ruled the Punjab well, as an independent state until his death.

First Afghan War : 1839-1842

Second Afghan War
Britain determined, entirely due to fear of Russia influence, to depose Dost Mohammad and restore their faithful ally, Shuja Shah, to the throne. Dost Mohammad however, was very popular and a strong leader, while Shuja Shah, who had been exiled nearly thirty years previously was dissipated and arrogant. Britain succeeded in restoring him to the throne, but realized that he would be overthrown again as soon as they left. Therefore the British set up an outpost in Kabul, of 10,000 soldiers and camp followers, including women and children, and bribed some of the tribal leaders to keep quiet. Afghanistan was "pacified", at least temporarily.

During this time Dost Mohammad, turned himself in to the British and went into voluntary exile. After two years, without any warning, the mountain tribes rose against Shuja Shah and the British invaders. The old and infirm commander in charge of the British camp declined to take decisive measures to stop the violence, and before long the camp was surrounded and the situation hopeless. The rebels agreed to allow the army to march out of Kabul unmolested if it returned immediately to the Punjab, although the year was late and the passes already covered with snow. Since there was no alternative, the army commenced its march, leaving behind as hostages those women and children unable to make the passage. The offer of safe passage however, had been treachery. As soon as the army began its march over the snow-swept mountains, they were pursued and slaughtered mercilessly, only a single man from then entire army escaping safely. The following summer the British sent a large expedition into Afghanistan to rescue the remaining hostages and "punish" the leaders of the rebellion. They did so, but then withdrew, released Dost Mohammad from exile, and resolved to interfere no further in Afghan affairs.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Ghuzni (First ) British victory
This fortress, garrisoned by 3,000 Afghans, under Haidar Khan, was captured, January 21, 1839, by the British. The besiegers having no breaching guns, it was found necessary to blow in the main gate, and the place was then stormed, at a cost of 18 officers and 162 rank and file, killed and wounded. The garrison lost 500 killed.
Battle of Khelat (First ) British victory
This place, which was defended by a garrison of Beluchis, under Mehrab Khan, was captured by a British force, 1,000 strong, under General Willshire, November 13, 1839 The defenders lost 400 killed, including their leader and 2,000 prisoners. The British lost 37 killed and 107 wounded.
Battle of Beymaroo (First ) Afghans victory
Fought November 23, 1841, when a detachment of General Elphinstone's force, under Brigadier Shelton, attempted to dislodge a large body of Afghans, posted near Beymaroo village. The detachment had one gun only, which, being well served, did considerable execution, but it broke down, whereupon the Afghans attacked, and a charge of Ghazis caused a panic and a disorderly flight to the British camp.
Battle of Khyber Pass (First ) Afghans victory
While passing through this defile, the British force, under General Elphinstone, retreating on Jellalabad, was attacked by the Afghans, January 8,1842, and lost 3,000, including followers.
Battle of Jugdulluck (First ) Afghans victory
At this place the remnant of General Elphinstone's army made their last stand, January 12, 1842, against the Afghans and Ghilzais. Of the few who escaped the massacre at this point, only one, Dr. Brydon, succeeded in reaching Jellalabad.
Siege of Jellalabad (First ) British victory
This fortress was besieged by the Afghans, under Mohammed Akbar Khan, March 11, 1842, after the destruction of General Elphinstone's force in the Khoord Cabul pass. It was defended by a small British garrison, under General Sale. Akbar led his whole army to the assault, but was gallantly repulsed, and then sat down to besiege the place in form. An attempt to relieve it by Brigadier Wyld, in January, 1843, failed, Wyld being defeated in the Khyber Pass by the Khyberis. The garrison meanwhile made several successful sorties, and on April 7, drove Akbar Khan out of his entrenchments, with a loss of all his guns, and many men, forcing him to raise the siege. All chance of a renewal of the investment was ended by the arrival on the 18th, of a strong relieving force, under General Pollock.
Battle of Khojah Pass (First ) Afghans victory
Fought March 28, 1842, when General England, in an endeavor to relieve General Nott in Kandahar, marched into the pass with 500 men only, without waiting for the rest of his brigade, and was defeated by the Afghans with a loss of 100 killed and wounded, and compelled to retire to Quettah.
Battle of Ghoaine (First ) British victory
Fought August 30, 1842, between General Nott's force, on its march from Kandahar to Ghuzni, and the Afghans, under Shems-ud-din, Governor of Ghuzni. The Afghans were totally defeated, losing all their guns, tents and baggage.
Battle of Maidan (First ) British victory
Fought September 14, 1842, between the British, under General Nott, and 12,000 Afghans, under Shems-ud-din, who occupied the heights commanding the road to Kabul. Nott attacked and carried the Afghan position, the Afghans being driven off with heavy loss.

Short Biography
General Elphinstone Elderly, infirm commander of the British regiment in Afghanistan, that was massacred at Khyber pass.
Dost Muhammed Afghan ruler during the first Anglo-Afghan War
Shems-ud-din Leader of the rebellious Afghans. Defeated at the battle of Maidan.
Sir William Nott Led the force from Khandahr that avenged the Massacre of Kyber Pass.

Story Links
Book Links
Khyber Pass  in  Stories from English History, Part Third  by  Alfred J. Church
How the Punjab was Painted Red  in  India: Peeps at History  by  Beatrice Home
First Afghan War  in  Our Empire Story  by  H. E. Marshall
Massacre of an Army  in  Historical Tales: English  by  Charles Morris
Valley of Death  in  India  by  Victor Surridge
Story of Afghanistan  in  Growth of the British Empire  by  M. B. Synge
Troubles in India  in  The Reign of Queen Victoria  by  M. B. Synge

Scinde Campaign : 1843

The Scinde (Sinde) Region was the Western-most coastal area of India, directly below Afghanistan (now southern Pakistan). It was a Moslem region, and was an independent country that Britain had had few relations with, up until the time of the Afghan Wars. At that time, the British needed to march through Scinde territory and the Moslem leaders were compelled to accept a treaty by which they paid a tribute to Shuja Shah, surrendered the fort of Bukkur to the British, and allowed a steam flotilla to navigate the Indus. No crisis occurred however, until 1842, when Sir Charles Napier arrived in Scinde and made even more demands on the emirs. The Scindes resented this loss of independence, and attacked the residency near Hyderabad, which was defended by Outram. Then followed the decisive battle of Meeanee and the annexation of Scinde.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Meeanee (Scinde ) British victory
Fought February 17, 1843, between 2,800 British and native troops, under Sir Charles Napier, and about 20,000 Beluchis, under the Amirs of Scinde. The infantry were at one time almost overpowered by the overwhelming numbers of the enemy, who attacked with great bravery, but they were rescued by a charge of the 9th Bengal cavalry, who broke up the assailants, and in the end the Beluchis were routed with a loss of 5,000 men and several guns. The British lost 256 killed and wounded.
Battle of Dubba (Scinde ) British victory
Fought March 24, 1843, between 5,000 British troops, under Sir Charles Napier, and 20,000 Beluchis, under the Amir Shir Mohamed. The enemy was strongly posted behind a double nullah, which was carried by the infantry with great gallantry, and the Beluchis were totally defeated.
Battle of Hyderabad (Scinde ) British victory
Fought March 24, 1843, between 6,000 British troops, under Sir Charles Napier, and 20,000 Beluchis, under Shir Mohammed. The latter was strongly entrenched behind the Fullali, but the Beluchis, being thrown into disorder by a heavy artillery fire, were overthrown by a charge of cavalry on their exposed flank, and a frontal attack by the 22nd Regiment. This defeat put an end to the resistance of the Scinde Emirs.

Short Biography
James Outram Hero of the sieges of Cawnpore and Lucknow during the Sepoy Rebellion.
Sir Charles Napier British commander who led the Scinde campaign in 1843.

Second Afghan War : 1878-1880

Second Afghan War

The second Afghan war was brought on, like the first, by an all-consuming fear of Russian aggression. Afghanistan was a buffer state between the British Empire in India, and the Russian Empire which had recently annexed much of Central Asia. The second war was provoked, like the first, when the Afghans received a Russian Embassy. Britain immediately insisted they receive an embassy from India so that the Britons would have an equal opportunity to interfere in Afghan affairs. This request was refused, so Britain sent two divisions to enforce their "request". The intention was to march into Kabul to display a show of force, so that the Afghan leaders would seriously entertain Britain's concerns.

Colonel Roberts was put in command and very quickly won such a decisive victory that the Afghans sued for peace. The peace mission that was sent to Kabul however, was treacherously slain, so the war resumed with even greater intensity. As soon as he heard of the disaster Roberts led another successful campaign, and marched his army into Kabul. He was joined by another division of the army that had met with equal success, and with Afghanistan pacified, it was decided that one division could leave Kabul, but before it left, there was news of another calamity near Kandahar. A British troop had been routed with the loss of over 1000 men, and the survivors were besieged in Kandahar. At once Roberts led a relieving army from Kabul to Kandahar and in a months time had dealt the besiegers a decisive blow, and relieved his comrades. Once more peace was declared, but this time, instead of placing an incompetent and helpless figurehead on the throne, the British supported a member of the Royal family who had much support also from the Afghans. Thus ended the Second Afghan War.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Peiwar Kotal (Second ) British victory
Fought December 2, 1878, between a British force, 3,200 strong, under Sir Frederick Roberts, with 13 guns, and about 18,000 Afghans, with 11 guns, strongly posted in the Kotal. By an able, but difficult turning movement, the pass was crossed, and the Afghans completely defeated, with heavy loss, all their guns being captured. The British lost 20 killed and 78 wounded.
Battle of Charasiab (Second ) British victory
Fought October 6, 1879, when Sir Frederick Roberts attacked a force of Afghans and Ghilzais, who were massed on the road by which a convoy was approaching from Zahidabad, under General Macpherson. The enemy was routed and dispersed, and the convoy reached camp safely.
Battle of Ahmed Khel (Second ) British victory
Fought 1880, when a British force under General Stewart on the march to Ghuzni was attacked by about 15,000 Ghilzais. A rush of 3,000 Ghazis was successfully repulsed, and the enemy defeated and driven off, leaving 1,000 dead on the field. The British lost 17 only.
Battle of Maiwand (Second ) Afghans victory
Fought July 27, 1880, between a small British force, with 6 guns, under General Borrows, and the Afghan army, under Ayub Khan. A Bombay native regiment was broken by a Ghazi rush, and although the 66th Regiment fought magnificently, the British were routed, with a loss of 32 officers and 939 men killed, and 17 officers and 151men wounded. The survivors escaped with difficulty to Kandahar.
Battle of Kandahar (Second ) British victory
Fought September 1, 1880 between the British, under Lord Roberts, and the Afghans, under Ayub Khan, immediately after the completion of the famous march from Kabul. Ayub was completely defeated, with a loss of 2,000 men, and his army dispersed. The British losses were only 248 killed and wounded.

Short Biography
Lord Roberts Career officer, saw service in Indian Mutiny, Afghanistan, Abyssinia, India and South Africa.
Sher Ali Ruler of Afghan during the Second Afghan War.
General Stewart Leader of the British forces during the Second Afghan War.

Story Links
Book Links
Afghanistan  in  The Story of Lord Roberts  by  Edmund Francis Sellar

Chitral and Tirah Campaigns : 1895-1897

Chitral Campaign
After the Second Afghan War, a long period of peace ensued in India, save for a very short and one-sided war in Burmah, and several border wars with hill tribes on the northwestern-most frontier of India, near the source of the Indus River. Two of the most famous of these border wars were the Chitral campaign, and the Tirah campaign. In both cases, British forces were called to the relief of a garrison who became surrounded by hill tribe rebels.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Chitral (Chitral Campaign ) British victory
On March 3, 1895, the Chitral garrison, consisting of 90 Sikhs and 280 Kashmir Imperial Service troops, with 7 British officers under Captain Campbell, was attacked by a large force of Chitralis and Bajauris under Shere Afzal, the Pretender to the Chitral throne, and Umrar Khan of Bajaur. A sortie was repulsed, with a loss of 58, including 2 British officers, and General Baj Singh, who commanded the Kashmiris, but in spite of a series of attacks, and continual mining operations, the garrison held out until April 18, when it was relieved by Colonel Kelly. One fifth of the garrison was killed or wounded.
Battle of Malakand Pass (Chitral Campaign ) British victory
Fought April 3, 1895, when the British expedition, under General Low, 15,000 strong. forced the pass, which was held by about 12,000 tribesmen, with a loss of 8 officers and 61men killed and wounded. The Chitralis lost about 800.
Battle of Dargai (Tirah Campaign ) British victory
Fought October 20, 1897, when a British brigade, under General Yeatman Biggs, stormed the heights, which were held by a large force of Afridis. The actual storming was accomplished by the Gordon Highlanders, and the British loss amounted to 37 killed and 175 wounded. Colonel Mathias' speech to the Gordons, before leading them to the charge was, "Highlanders, the General says the position must be taken at all costs. The Gordons will take it."

Image Links

An Afghan Pass. Soldiers hauling a Gun
 in Stories from English History, Part Third

The sole survivor of an army, Dr. Brydon reaches Jellalabad alone
 in India: Peeps at History

Hill tribesmen sniping a British force on the north-west frontier
 in India: Peeps at History

The captain obligingly did as he was asked.
 in Red Book of Heroes

In another moment he would have been trampled under the feet of the Afghan cavalry.
 in Red Book of Heroes

Crushed by rolling stones, mown down by volleys of musket-shot.
 in Our Empire Story

Sikh orderly trying to protect General Roberts from bullets
 in The Story of Lord Roberts

The retreat from Afghanistan, 1842
 in India

Ashley Eden forced by the Bhutanese to sign a treaty
 in India