On July 27, 1880, General George Burrows led just under 2,500 British and Indian troops into the field near Maiwand, Afghanistan, to intercept an Afghan force led by Ayub Khan. Burrows, however, was not aware that he was confronting a force that numbered around 25,000 Afghan warriors. The terrible engagement that followed, known to history as the Battle of Maiwand, was one of the major battles of the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
We will not trace the background and causes of the war here. It will be enough to say that the war was a contest between the British and Russian empires for control of the region now known as Afghanistan. In 1905, a fascinating first-hand account of the Battle of Maiwand was published in Britain in The Royal Magazine. As a combat narrative it is equal to anything published in connection to the great wars of the twentieth century; yet because it involved a colonial war in an unknown locale, it has been buried by the silt of time. We will give it its due here.
Francis J. Naylor was a young gunner with E Battery, B Brigade of the Royal Horse Artillery. He had marched with Burrows’s force from Kandahar, and was among the 2,500 men sent to engage Ayub Khan’s force. They left Kandahar on July 4th, and reached the Helmand River in a week. Problems began at once. Some of their native troops deserted to the enemy, taking with them four desperately-needed smoothbore guns. The guns were recovered, but Naylor and his unit were already coming under fire. Afghan women sniped at them from the roofs of houses. Yet “[t]hese happenings were merely preliminaries to the great day of the disaster, which was on July 27th.”
Burrows learned that an Afghan advance force had reached Maiwand, which was about twelve miles away; it was believed that Ayub Khan would soon join this advance party with his main body. Burrows believed he should prevent these two forces from combining against him. So on the morning of July 27th, the entire brigade struck camp and set out, not having had anything to eat.
We marched on for several miles, crawling cautiously, which, hampered as we were, was the only thing to do. Besides, it was a dull, heavy morning, and the enemy might fall upon us almost unseen and unawares at any place and at any moment. Just think what it all meant to us—a long, straggling body, with not far short of 2000 camels, and many ponies, bullocks, donkeys, mules, and horses, drivers and transport followers. To have had only British troops, untrammeled , would have been bad enough; to be burdened with these swarms of non-combatants and animals was disastrous.
Naylor and his comrades were halfway to Maiwand after four hours of marching. They then heard from a spy that Ayub Khan was already there with a large number of men. But by this time there was not much Burrows could do except to keep moving forward. To pause or retreat would have exposed his column to fire from snipers in the hills; there was nothing left to do except take his chances in battle. Naylor makes it clear that the men knew they were advancing into danger:
There we were, pinned and crippled, forced to go ahead, if we went at all, and knowing that to advance meant almost certain death. Pretty much as our own position was, I fancy, is the case of the man who has to battle with a storm and drive his ship through it, or bide his time as best he can until wind and sea have done their worst. Just as the gale strikes the ship, so were we struck by the enemy. In the case of the ship something perhaps goes, some point in her stability is affected. So it was with us, for at the crisis when our strength was most urgently needed many of our native troops bolted. I have heard it put in a gentler way than that; but they went, and they left us to it.
When Naylor looked up, he could see that he and his comrades were trapped in a valley, and the crags above him were swarming with Afghan riflemen. “Only those who have fought them in their native hills,” he writes, “can understand how swift they are in their movements. And they are so merciless with it!” It is a comment that could just as easily have been written by a foreign soldier in Afghanistan in the 2000s as it was by a one in the 1880s. The fighting began in earnest around noon. The British tried to bring their artillery fire to bear; but the Afghans had artillery of their own, and they had more guns than the British, and in better positions. Naylor then describes how he lost his hand:
We were now fighting not so much for victory, which there was no hope of winning, as for our very existence. At No. 2 gun, which was in charge of Sergeant Mullane, who later in the day won the V.C. [Victoria Cross], I fired no fewer than 105 rounds. That gun and other guns became almost red hot, and some of the men had their hands burnt in handling them. It was while serving the gun that I lost my hand. I was taking a tube out of my pouch to fire another cartridge, when a six-pound shot ricocheted on the gun-wheel tyre, which is a broad iron band. The shot tore the tyre as if it had been India rubber, struck me on the left hand, and then broke one of the bones in one of our officers’ arms.
As fire poured down on Burrows’s men, the Afghan infantry moved closer and closer. Many officers were killed. One Major Blackwood was hit in the thigh by fire, tied the wound with a handkerchief, and continued to lead from the front until he was killed. Unable to mount his horse due to his wounds, he was set upon and slain by Afghan warriors, who then beheaded him. A friend of Naylor’s named Brown tried to save Blackwood, but he was driven off after having suffered seven slashes from enemy swords. The fighting now degenerated into a situation where each man could only try to survive on his own: “It was a case of every man for himself.” One officer, a Lt. Maclaine, was taken prisoner, “which in the case of the Afghans is worse than death itself.” Once the Afghans captured the unit colors, a general retreat began.
Naylor makes it clear that had the Afghans wished to pursue them in retreat, their might have been wiped out to a man. He has little use for the native “allies” that accompanied the British; he describes with anger an incident where he saw one of them shoot a mounted man and take his horse. The only goal now of Burrows’s battered force was to get back to Kandahar. It was a long and terrible march, with the moans of the wounded echoing through the desolate hills. But it was thirst that Naylor recalled more than anything else:
It may be some terrible spectacle of death or suffering, or it may be some grotesque and trivial incident such as you may meet with even on the field of death. In my own case, you might suppose that the wound which cost me my hand would be the chief thing to dwell in my memory; yet it is not so. Whenever I look back upon Maiwand the thing I mostly remember is our terrible and maddening thirst. We had nothing to drink before the fight began, we had not a drop of water during those long hours of pounding, and we had no chance whatever of getting anything to quench our thirst. Parched and swollen-tongued we retreated from the battlefield, and mile after mile in that awful land we and our poor horses strained at the guns to save them. Thirst!
Some of the native troops, driven insane by thirst, smashed open the medicine chests and drank whatever liquids they could find, not caring what they might be drinking. Fetid, scum-covered puddles of water here and there afforded some relief, but not much. Naylor describes how he drank from one of these puddles, and then, after rising from his belly, found his mustache covered with “green slime.” In the retreat, Naylor and his wounded comrades covered about fifty miles without a rest; but they made it to Kandahar. His shattered hand was amputated. Burrows himself survived, but just barely; he had had two horses shot out from under him during the battle.
Strange things happen in battle, and heroism can come from the most unanticipated quarters. Naylor tells us that two men were awarded the Victoria Cross at Maiwand, and eight men the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the decoration next below it in importance. Yet “the most remarkable act of devotion,” he tells us, was displayed by a British private of the 66th. “His was a strange and striking case,” Naylor notes. He does not record the man’s name.
A few days before the battle, a native saw this private siphoning some rum out of a cask. The native threatened to report the misconduct; a physical altercation then ensued, and the private shot the man dead. The private was sentenced to death, but was given the chance to fight at Maiwand. The man said, “Yes, I’ll fight to the last.” During the battle, the private put himself in the thick of the fight. As officers fell all around him, he took it upon himself to save the regimental colors. So he “took one of the silk Colours and folded it around his waist, and in that way, fighting to save the honour of his regiment, he died.”
Read more stories of heroism and fortitude in Thirty-Seven: