THE LIST OF POWERS that have invaded Afghanistan reads like a who’s who of history’s mighty empires. It includes Macedonians, Indians, Mongols, Mughals, Persians, Sikhs, Soviets and most recently the United States and its allies. For its part, Britain has deployed troops to Afghanistan no fewer than four times in the past 180 years. In fact, for much of the 19th Century, the remote Central Asian territory was at the epicenter of a turf war between England and Russia. Both empires sought to dominate the region, which was situated between the Tsars’ realm and British India, through equal parts political intrigue and military posturing. Today, the conflict would be called a “Cold War” – during the Victorian era, it was known as “the Great Game” – a term first popularized by Rudyard Kipling.
Britain’s bloody Afghan adventure serves as the backdrop to a new historical novel by American author, journalist and historian David Smethurst entitled The Road to Kandahar: A Novel of the Second Afghan War, 1878-80.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the rivalry between Britain and Russia for supremacy in Central Asia,” the San Francisco-based writer told MilitaryHistoryNow.com. “When I set down to write about this period I chose the Second Afghan War as a backdrop since it was a largely forgotten though fascinating war.”
Fascinating indeed. And to illustrate the point, Smethurst is offering MHN readers this list of seven amazing facts about the little-known conflict.
By David Smethurst
The Rise of Khaki
With the advent of modern, rifled weapons, Britain’s famous scarlet tunics no longer made sense, unless of course the aim was to provide a better target for the enemy. Nor were the old heavy red coats suited to the hot climate of the Indian subcontinent. Harry Burnett Lumsden realized this in 1846 when he was appointed to form a group of army scouts called the Corps of Guides. Based in Peshawar, he allowed this irregular force to wear whatever uniforms they liked. Experimenting with local dyes and cotton material, Lumsden is credited with Britain’s evolutionary change from scarlet to khaki. By the time of the Second Afghan War, the traditional English crimson tunic was officially retired for field operations in favor of the drab brown color scheme.
The British army brought a pair of Gatling guns with them during the Second Afghan War. Patented in 1861 by American Dr. Richard Gatling, the famous rapid-fire weapon was the world’s first machine gun. The six-barreled, hand-cranked Gatling could fire up to 200 rounds per minute. This may not sound like a lot, but during an era of sabers, lances, and single shot rifles and pistols, it was a devastating volume of fire. Two were used during the Battle of Charisiab in 1879. Today’s M-61 20mm Vulcan Rotary Cannon is a descendant of the Gatling. With six barrels driven by an electric motor, the weapon is capable of firing 7,200 rounds a minute with a muzzle velocity of 3,380 feet per second.
No, he did not fight in this war (he was a fictional character of Sir Author Conan Doyle), but his trusted companion, Dr. Watson, did. A close reading of Holmes’ many adventures reveals that a jezail bullet struck Watson in the shoulder at the Battle of Maiwand. Watson was a surgeon with the ill-fated 66th Foot, which suffered nearly two-thirds casualties. After recovering from his injuries, he took up residence at 221b Baker Street and the rest is (fictional) history.
The Second of Four Wars
All told, the British have fought four conflicts in Afghanistan. The First Afghan War began in 1839 and ended in 1842 costing the lives of 690 British soldiers, 2,840 Indian soldiers and 12,000 followers. The Second Afghan War began in 1878 and ended in 1880 with 1,850 killed in action and more than 8,000 felled by disease. The Third Afghan War took place in 1919 with the loss of 1,751 British and Indian soldiers. Britain’s fourth fight there came in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. To date, 453 British soldiers have died in the fighting. This latest mission has been the longest one yet.
The defeat of the British at the Battle of Maiwand on July 27, 1880 was just one of two devastating losses the British suffered within a span of 19 months during the late 19th Century. On Jan. 22, 1879, a British force of some 1,200 men was attacked by a Zulu army roughly ten times that size at Isandlwana in Zululand, in South Africa. The 1st Battalion, 24th Foot, was wiped out. Nineteen months later, at the Battle of Maiwand, a British and Indian army of some 2,500 men was defeated by an Afghani army and suffered almost 1,000 dead.
The Martini-Henry Rifle
The British army marched into battle in Afghanistan with the state-of-the-art the Martini-Henry rifle. Adopted in 1871, it replaced muzzle-loading rifles such as the Snider-Enfield becoming the empire’s first breach-loading metallic cartridge rifle. The firing action was developed by an American, Henry Peabody, and refined by Friedrich von Martini, a Swiss inventor. The barrel used Alexander Henry’s rifling system. The British army relied on this rifle for more than 30 years before it was replaced by the Lee-Metford magazine-fed, bolt action rifle.
The British army employed telegraphs not only to pass messages back and forth from India to Afghanistan, but also between armies in the field. During the Siege of Sherpur, military commanders used telegraphs to relay orders to units within the cantonment. The army also employed a telegraph train consisting of horses and mules that carried the equipment necessary to string telegraph lines between towns and units. In addition to telegraphs, the British used a solar-powered variant of the telegraph called the heliograph. Relying on sunlight and mirrors, regiments in the field could communicate with one another using Morse code signals at distances of up to 30 miles. The British employed many types of heliographs, which were based on the Mance Mark V. The device featured a mirror on a tripod with a small sighting hole in the middle to align the signal with the target receiver. The operator would sight on the target and rotate the mirror using a lever or shutter to send messages
David Smethurst was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and is a dual citizen of the United States and the United Kingdom. He earned a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University, and a Ph.D. in geography from the University of California at Berkeley. His writing career includes stints as an editor for two national magazines, and his freelance work has appeared in numerous publications including Outside and Parenting. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two daughters.