The late 19th century saw an intense competition between the British and Russian empires for influence in central Asia. Once act of this “Great Game” was the Second Afghan War, which was fought between 1878 and 1880. Britain’s goals were two-fold: to keep tsarist forces out of Afghanistan, and to create a friendly buffer state between the British Raj and Russian territory.
The antecedents to the war were these. In 1878 the Emirate of Afghanistan signed an agreement with Russia that could be interpreted as an attempt to convert the country into a Russian protectorate. This the British could not accept; in November 1878 London sent an army into the country to depose the emir and install a regime favorable to their interests. The first phase of the war ended in 1879 as British forces defeated the Afghans at Ali Musjid and Peiwar Kotal. Hostilities resumed, however, when the British Resident was assassinated that same year.
It is not central to our purposes here to describe every detail of this conflict. We will only note that British forces occupied the city of Kabul, but then suffered a significant defeat at Maiwand when two brigades of British troops were mauled by an Afghan force commanded by Ayub Khan in July 1880. A British garrison then found itself isolated and besieged at Kandahar. With no way to help the landlocked men at Kandahar, General Frederick S. Roberts (1st Earl Roberts), devised an incredibly daring plan: he and his men would undertake a forced march through 320 miles of hostile territory from Kabul to Kandahar to relieve the garrison. Thus was the stage set for one of the most epic marches in modern military history.
This description of the march draws on the first-hand account by a twenty-four year veteran of the British Army named Samuel Compton of the 9th Lancers. His story was published in 1905, but at the time he was only a private. Even twenty-five years after the fact, Compton’s stirring tale bristles with pride; his admiration for the leadership abilities of Lord Roberts (affectionately known as “Bobs”) remains similarly undimmed. Only men who have endured unspeakable hardship together can fully appreciate their trials; but we will nevertheless attempt to reconstruct the outlines of this epic march, which took place from August 9th to August 31st of 1880.
“It was my birthday when we began the march from Kabul to Kandahar.” So does Compton bluntly begin his tale in Xenophonian style. There were 10,000 soldiers in all, plus around 8,000 followers (doolie-bearers, servants, porters, etc.). Lord Roberts also had 2,300 horses and mules, and around 8,000 camels, ponies, and donkeys for transport. To this baggage was added 18 mountain-guns; these were transported in parts, and could be assembled for action when needed. It is clear from Compton’s account that General Roberts planned the operation with great care, and was assisted by officers of very high quality. It was this thoroughness, and the sheer willpower of the effort, that ensured the success of what Roberts called the “Kabul-Kandahar Field Force.” Every member of the force had been hand-picked.
Roberts’s instructions were that no man was to carry more than 30 lbs. of kit. Each native soldier (the British allies consisted of Indian and Afghan troops) was permitted only 20 lbs. They would have to find what they needed on the march, either through forage or purchase from the locals. We should note that then, as now, the Afghan rebels were ferocious fighters who, in Compton’s words, “never showed mercy to any Englishman who fell into his hands.” Prisoners could expect to be tortured and cut to pieces, and left exposed to die a miserable death.
The huge, snaking column started out in early August. To cover 320 miles in 22 days meant that the force had to average 14.5 miles per day. But these were not easy miles. These were miles through barren, craggy, rocky ground, with paths scarce or impossible to find. These were miles choked with blinding dust, miles lacking visible water or food. What shines in Compton’s account is his unqualified admiration for Lord Roberts: here was a man, he tells us, who always led from the front, a commander who shared the hardships and sufferings of his men with not a word of complaint:
A peculiarity of “Bobs” was that he could snatch a few minutes’ sleep at any time, and resume his work as fresh as a daisy. But unless you had such a bird’s-eye view, you never saw more than part of the column—even we of the cavalry rarely got beyond our own immediate companions. And yet with all the apparent disorder there was cohesion and discipline. Lord Roberts had got his force together in wonderful fashion, he kept it in hand in wonderful fashion, he commanded it in wonderful fashion, too; and the most wonderful thing of all was that he got it through pretty much as a captain gets his ship from one port to another. No one, except those who took part in the march, can ever really understand what it meant—all you can do is to give an idea of it, and so far as I am concerned, a poor idea at best.
Many of the men did not believe they would make it through alive. Everyone knew about the British force that had been annihilated in the Afghan mountains in 1842. Military forces today have the luxury of resupply by air; that option did not exist in 1880. Roberts and his men had only what they could carry or pick up along the way. Two cavalry regiments led the way, with additional cavalry regiments on either flank; after this came two infantry brigades, followed by the field hospital, and then the baggage train. The rear was brought up by the 3rd Infantry Brigade, together with a mountain battery.
Day after exhausting day, the men were tormented by thirst, exhaustion, clouds of kicked-up dust, and the horrifying desolation of the Afghan mountains. Now and then the scream of a pack animal would echo through the sullen valleys as a beast lost its footing and plunged to its death. Roberts had “bread-stuff for five days, preserved vegetables for fifteen, [and] rum, tea, sugar, and salt for thirty.” Yet so skillfully did he manage his men’s rations that, when the force reached Kandahar, they still had three days’ worth of provisions to spare.
The men settled into a grim, methodical pace. They were entirely cut off from the outside world; no one could know their precise location until—or if—they arrived in Kandahar. During the first four days, they averaged eleven and a half miles per day. The route was constantly menaced by three dangers: day and night attacks by Afghan militants, disease (in the form of cholera), and starvation. Every morning, Lord Roberts mounted his horse and rode at the head of the column; his horse, a tough Arab charger named Vonolel, had been his companion for over twenty years. This animal was so valued, and achieved such fame, that a special order from Queen Victoria later authorized Vonolel to be awarded the “Kabul to Kandahar Star” medal, with four clasps!
The Afghan mountains were blazing hot during the day, and freezing cold at night. Roberts made the exceedingly wise decision not to steal or plunder any provisions from local Afghans en route. He had no wish to multiply the number of his antagonists. Nor were any villagers harassed or molested. He paid the Afghans for everything, even go so far as to purchase entire houses that could be then stripped down for firewood. During the march he purchased over five thousand sheep, as well as stocks of grain he found under local storage. Water was another matter; Compton relates that it could only be found by “digging or scooping in the ground, and even then it was always salty, so there was not much relief in taking it.” Fuel for fires had to come from desiccated plants or roots foraged along the way. But everyone understood the need to keep moving forward; to stop was to court catastrophe:
By day we frizzled, and by night we froze. And with all the heat of the march there was the ever-present cloud of sand which the column raised—sand which got into our eyes, our mouths, our ears, our boots, our clothes—everywhere, until with the heat and irritation of it were almost maddened. But torturing though it was, it was the same for all, and you can get used even to keeping your clothes on for the best part of a month.
The general routine was to rise at 3:00 a.m. and begin moving. Every hour of marching was followed by a ten-minute rest halt, with longer breaks for meals. Men who drew watch duty had to stay up for additional lengths of time. So from beginning at 3:00 a.m. and ending at around 7:00 p.m. or later, the men were enduring “fifteen or sixteen hours of incessant duty.” Some men could not take it. Problems began with some of the native porters at first; they would lose heart, become tired and listless, and ask to be left behind to die. In general nothing could be done for a man who had resolved to die. It was he, and only he, who had to supply the engine of his own survival:
Threats and pleadings were useless. A native would fall to the rear and hide himself. When found he would beg to be allowed to remain and die—although he knew that the Afghans were ceaselessly hovering around to cut the stragglers off. You may watch and threaten as hard as you please, but on such a journey, if a man is determined to elude watchfulness, he will succeed. Some did succeed, and the result was that they fell into the hands of the enemy and were cut to pieces. Whenever a straggler was lost like that, there was always nameless mutilation.
Around a hundred miles from Kabul, Roberts and his men reached the fortress at Ghazni. When they reached Kelat-i-Ghilzai, they learned that the garrison at Kandahar was still holding out; their mission might have served a purpose after all. Roberts added more men to his force for the final approach to Kandahar. After marching continuously for two hundred miles, Roberts gave his men a day of rest, an announcement that was greeted with unmitigated joy. The sick were beginning to multiply in number; the hope was to make one big push that would propel them to their destination. And this they did. Upon first sighting Kandahar, Compton relates that it was like “beholding the Promised Land.” The besieged troops there—comprising about a thousand British and three thousand native soldiers—greeted Roberts and his men as liberators, for they had long before abandoned all thoughts of rescue.
So the siege was lifted. On September 1, 1880, Roberts topped the feat of marching 320 miles through the mountains by defeating the Afghans at the Battle of Kandahar. The war was concluded soon after. The British government created a special decoration, the Kabul to Kandahar Star, to be awarded to those who had taken part in the march.
Read more about great exploits in the comprehensive essays, Digest: