anglo afghan war


The British Enfield Mk I/MK II Revolver,

By the late 1870′s the British Army was still using the old Adams revolver as its standard issue sidearm. Many of the old cap and ball revolvers had been converted to accept metallic cartridges, however the revolver dated to the 1850′s and was quickly being outclassed by competing models produced in France, Belgium, and Austria. 

Designed in 1879 by the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, the Enfield revolver was adopted by the British Army and the Canadian Northwest Mounted Police in 1880. A six shot revolver designed to fire a .476 caliber blackpowder cartridge, the Enfield had some interesting design features on paper, however it was ultimately a flawed design which severely limited it’s service life.

The hallmark of the Enfield revolver was it’s Owen Jones self extraction system. The Enfield was loaded one cartridge at a time through a traditional loading gate on the right hand side of the revolver. However it utilized a break open extraction system which was intended to eject empty cartridge casings while leaving loaded rounds in the chamber. Unlatching the mechanism allowed the barrel to tilt up while the cylinder moved forward. As the cylinder moved forward spent casings would be ejected from their chambers.

The idea was that spent casings were short enough to clear the gap between the cylinder and frame while live cartridges would not. The problem was, it was not uncommon for spent casings to fail to clear the cylinder, becoming jammed within the mechanism. In addition wear tended to weaken the spindle arms which failed to ejected spent casings, while hinge wear could cause the barrel to wobble, decreasing accuracy. Black powder residue from the .476 Enfield cartridge also had a tendency to cause the ejection mechanism to jam.

The Enfield revolver saw use in some colonial conflicts, most notably the Second Anglo Afghan War. During the war, British soldiers complained that the .476 Enfield cartridge lacked stopping power. Due to the flaws of the Enfield design, the British Army began to phase out the Enfield revolver in favor of the Webley revolver in 1889, giving the Enfield a short service life of only 9 years.  The Northwest Mounted Police continued to use their Enfields until 1911.

Afghan Jezail rifled flintlock musket

Manufactured in Afghanistan around the late 18th or early 19th century.
.60 ball, probably made from a captured flintlock, some Damascus pattern on the barrel, decorated stock.

The Jezails were long muskets or rifles manufactured in various parts Western and Central Asia. Their long reach and their accuracy made them feared weapons during the Anglo-Afghan wars, as they far outranged the Brown Bess muskets fielded by the British Empire.

Afghan snipers were expert marksmen and their juzzails fired roughened bullets, long iron nails or even pebbles over a range of some 250 metres. The Afghans could fling the large rifles across their shoulders as if they were feathers and spring nimbly from rock to rock. They loved to decorate their rifles.


The First Anglo Afghan War, Part I — The Great Game

Afghanistan has always been the crossroads of mighty empires since Alexander the Great invaded the country in ancient antiquity.  Thus, over the centuries mighty empires have sought to control Afghanistan and Central Asia, a quest which in the 19th century was called “The Great Game”.  In the late 1830’s, both the borders of the British Empire and Russian Empire were closing in on Afghanistan.  After the Crimean War, Russia was not on good terms with the British, and it was feared that the Russians would invade Afghanistan, using it as a stepping stone for a further invasion of British controlled India.  The Brits sent an envoy to form and alliance with Afghanistan’s rulle, Dost Mohammed.  However Mohammed wanted the British to in turn ally with Afghanistan against the Sikhs, who had conquered the former Afghan territory of Peshawar.  This was impossible, since the British had an alliance with the Sikhs. Then the Russians allied with Persia, and laid siege to Afghan territory in the west.  It seemed as though Russia was making its move, so in 1839 Britain decided to invade Afghanistan.

During the spring of 1839 British forces under the command of Sir John Keene crossed the border into Afghanistan from the southern passes.  The 20,500 troops under Keene’s command were not regular British Army, but British East India Company forces.  From the time of the first British colonies in India up until the mid 1850’s, the East India Company ruled and administrated the British Dominion of India.  The East India Company had its own army and navy, and due to the wealth of the company Company forces were actually better equipped and better trained than most regular military forces.  The British East India Army was a collection of Indian soldiers called sepoys, as well as men recruited from Britain, and a number of Afghan allies.  

While traveling through the rugged mountain terrain of the Bolan Pass in southern Pakistan/Afghanistan, the British Army had to leave most of its heavy equipment, large cannon, and pack animals behind.  This was a problem because the main obstacle in between the mountains and Kabul was the city of Kandahar, guarded by the “impregnable” walls of the fortress of Ghazni.  The British reached Kandahar on May 4th, 1839, and immediately it was apparent that the fortress of Ghazni would be a formidable challenge.  With 70 foot high walls, a flooded moat, large hardwood gates which had been sealed with large rocks, and plenty of food and water for a lengthy siege, it seemed that the fortress would be impenetrable without heavy artillery.  Artillery which the British had been forced to leave behind.  However, interrogation of captured Afghan soldiers revealed that the north facing gate was left unsealed in order to allow communication and supplies to and from Kabul.  On July 22nd, under the cover of light artillery fire Indian engineers blew the gate with explosives.  The British immediately stormed the fortress, engaging the Afghans in hand to hand combat.  The fighting lasted all day and all night.  By morning, British forces had reach the city center and had captured Kandahar.  The British claimed losses of 17 dead and 165 wounded.  The Afghans lost around 500 men.  

The fall of Kandahar cleared the way for the final march on the capital of Kabul.  Shortly afterward, the government of Dost Mohammed quickly collapsed, and Mohammed was forced flee to what is now modern Uzbekistan.  Seven days later British forces marched unopposed in Kabul.  There were no victory celebrations or warm greetings offered by the Afghans, just indignant stares and angry glances.  To the British, conquering Afghanistan was easy.  However, as many great empires throughout history have learned, holding Afghanistan is much more difficult.  Little did the British know, but their great victory at Kandahar and Kabul would lead to one of the worst British military disasters of the 19th century.


I was very sad to hear of the passing of Sir Christopher Lee, who starred in many of my favorite films including Wicker Man, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Man with the Golden Gun, and of course, The Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf. 

Sir Christopher had several connections to the British Army, including his own service during World War Two. One of his other military connections was his grandfather, Frank James Carandini (Francesco Giacomo Carandini, b.1847, d.1920) 11th Marquess of Sarzano (Italy), son of Jerome (Girolamo) Carandini and Maria nee Burgess (aka Madame Carandini, the singer). FJ Carandini began his military career as an enlisted man, but he was raised from the ranks (likely by virtue of his noble birth) to be a commissioned officer.  Carandini served with the 8th Hussars in the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War. He attained his final rank of Major in 1893 at which time he transferred to the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers, and he retired in 1895. Carandini’s sword is the British Pattern 1821 Light Cavalry Officer’s Sword.

Note that Sir Christopher Lee’s full name is Christopher Frank Carandini Lee!

The Drums of the Fore and Aft, 1895 by Edward Matthew Hale - print.

The story, written by Rudyard Kipling, concerns an inexperienced Regular battalion on overseas service brigaded with a Highland Regiment and a Gurkha Regiment in Afghanistan. Unlike Kipling’s other tales, it concerns the disgrace of a battle almost lost rather than the glory of a battle won.

The main characters (the “Drums” of the title) are Jakin and Lew, a pair of delinquent drummer boys serving with the Regimental Band. Scrawny Jakin is an orphan, while fat-faced “Piggy” Lew is either a “line boy” (soldier’s son) or a volunteer. They are always getting written up for swearing, drinking, smoking, and fighting (the latter charge just as often against all comers as between themselves) and are disliked by the other drummers. Despite their reputations, they manage to get sent on campaign by personally fast-talking the colonel.

In Afghanistan, the unit has a terrible time adjusting to the climate and the rigors of campaign life. The men are also set on edge by the death of a private by sniper fire. On the day of the battle they take the center position between the Highlanders and the Ghurkhas. Their inexperience causes them to blunder and allows the enemy to close with them in hand-to-hand combat. They break and begin to retreat; the young officers of one company try to rally the men but are left behind to be slaughtered by the advancing Ghazi warriors.

The boys, fortified with drink, try to rally the regiment by playing the tune “British Grenadiers” and marching back and forth before the enemy. Shamed and encouraged by the boys’ bravery, they return to the attack. Before they can be reached, the boys are killed in the first volley of Afghan fire and are slain. The rallied and enraged troops rout the enemy and help win the battle, but are shunned by the rest of the Brigade for their earlier actions.

Afghan tribesmen ambush a British column in the Hindu Kush mountains during the “Retreat from Kabul” in 1842.  First Anglo Afghan War.

The retreat involved 4,500 British and Indian soldiers of the British East India Company, as well as 12,000 civilian camp followers, who were retreating from Kabul to the safety of Jalalabad. Only 1 man of the 16,500 person column would arrive safely in Jalalabad. The rest were either killed in ambushes, died of exposure or exhaustion, or were taken prisoner and later sold as slaves.