27 July 1880, the British have a very bad day near Maiwand, Afghanistan
129 years ago today was the Battle of Maiwand, a big deal at the time, now almost forgotten. This was during the second Anglo-Afghan war as once again the British attempted to conquer Afghanistan at gunpoint to give them the benefits of being British subjects, whether they liked it or not. However, this is not an essay about colonialism, it’s about the Battle of Maiwand, one of the few times that an Asian army defeated a European army during the 19th century. And the British weren’t just defeated, they were routed.
How did an Afghan “tribal” army defeat a modern British army? For one thing, odd as it may seem, the Afghans had better artillery than the British. The British had reserved all their modern breech loading cannons for service in Europe, the British colonial troops in Afghanistan were equipped with near antique smooth bore muzzle loaders. However, the nitty gritty. Nineteenth century wars in Afghanistan consisted of marching around trying to capture and defend key cities, since the countryside of Afghanistan was too rugged and too vast to control with the rather limited numbers of troop that either side had at their disposal. The background of this battle is fairly simple then, a British force under the command of one General Burrows was attempting to reach the village of Maiwand to cut off an Afghan army commanded by Ayub Khan.
Things didn’t go well for the British from the get go. Burrows wasn’t a very experienced commander, and when he got the word to move out, he waited till the next day. Worse, it took hours to get his forces ready, as many of his troops and commanders were also inexperienced. So by the time they got to Maiwand on 27 July, it had already been seized by Abub Khan’s numerically superior force. A prudent commander would have taken advantage of the fine defencive positions around the village of Mundabad, and forced the Afghans to attack them there. Burrows apparently wasn’t a prudent man, he ordered his forces to advance onto an open plain and attack the Afghan forces arrayed there. He may have even been under the impression (mistaken) that he could get to Maiwand before Abub Khan.
The astute reader is probably already saying “This can’t be good, ordering a numerically smaller force out into the open to attack a superior force.” It’s probably a good bet that many of his men were thinking the same thing. About half Burrow’s men were actually Indians, imagine them saying “This can’t be good” with an accent like Apu in The Simpsons. It was also a very hot sunny dusty day, and Burrows hadn’t even taken the time to get water properly distributed before heading out to do battle. Some of his soldiers hadn’t even eaten that day, imagine fighting a battle on an empty stomach. It gets worse. Burrow’s artillery misunderstood their orders and advanced further than Burrows had intended before setting up. So when the battle commenced, the British were deployed in an elongated “U” shape with their guns at the tip facing the Afghans. The battle began with an artillery duel, in which the better equipped and numerically superior Afghan guns quickly got the better of the British. At one point Burrows ordered his cavalry to charge the Afghan guns, but for some reason they made contact and then withdrew. If the cavalry attack had been vigorously pursued, the battle might have ended right there with a British victory.
It wasn’t. While the Afghan guns were pounding the British, the Afghan troops were pressing in on both sides of the British “U” formation. They were greatly aided by the fact that along the British right flank Burrows hadn’t noticed a deep gully. The Afghans were able to safely infiltrate along this gully and open fire on the exposed British troops from cover. At one point they even dragged two cannons down the gully and opened fire with them at point blank range. And on the British left flank, Afghan cavalry was attempting to encircle the British. They didn’t succeed, but they did cut the British off from their supplies and ammunition in the village of Khig.
And soon enough the British began to run out of water and cannon ammunition. The fighting got fierce as the Afghans closed in, and Burrow’s Indian troops broke and ran. There was no choice for the British troops to retreat as best they could. And if there’s anything the British do well, it’s retreat heroically. They fought their way to the village of Khig, where some British troops made a last stand while the rest of the army escaped. When the last eleven troops in Khig ran out of ammo, they made a bayonet charge against the Afghans. The Afghans were duly impressed, though of course they shot and stabbed them dead. As well as any stragglers, mostly the wounded, who couldn’t keep up with the retreating British troops. The Afghans could have pursued and destroyed the retreating British, but the Afghans had suffered heavy losses as well, so they weren’t in the mood to continue the fight. Plus they were busy looting the British baggage train which was in Khig. More than one defeated army has lived to fight another day because the victors were too busy looting the vanquished’s baggage. Lose your luggage, escape with your life, a trade most people would gladly make.
The British lost over half their force, nearly 1,000 British and Indian troops were killed, with many more wounded. The Afghans lost at least twice that many, and the victory wasn’t particularly important in any strategic sense, so for Abu Khan it was a classic Pyrrhic victory. He went on to lose the Battle of Kandahar and the war a few months later. In England and Europe, the battle caused quite a sensation. Several officers were court marshaled, while many other soldiers and officers were decorated for valour.
There really aren’t any big lessons here, other than the obvious, expecting an inexperienced general to lead troops into battle is a recipe for disaster. And of course it’s another fine example of Britain sending her young men to die in pointless foreign colonial wars, a lesson still lost on many Brits to this day.
(The above image of Queen Victoria decorating the survivors of the Battle of Maiwand is public domain as its copyright has long expired. Note Bobbie the dog. She not only was at the battle, she was with the last eleven men at their doomed stand in Khig! When they made their final charge, she ran away to join the rest of the escaping army. And though wounded, she made it home safely … and was also decorated by Queen Victoria. I don’t even know what to think about that.)