The roots of the Afghan War of 1878-80 lay in British fears of Russian encroachment towards India. In the 1850s the furthest Russian outpost in Central Asia was on the Caspian Sea, some 1,000 miles from Peshawar. By 1873 Russia had effective control of Turkestan, just 400 miles from Peshawar.
In 1878 British suspicion ratcheted up further still when a Russian mission arrived uninvited in Kabul. The bellicose Viceroy of India, Lord Lytton, demanded that unless the Amir of Afghanistan, Sher Ali, also accepted a British mission then one would be installed by force. Sher Ali fled the country without replying and left his son Yakub Khan as Regent.
On November 20 1878 three British forces invaded Afghanistan from India. Afghan resistance was mixed but eventually overcome and in May 1879 (following the death of Sher Ali) the two sides signed a treaty at Gundamuk which allowed the British to take the Khyber Pass and the Kurum Valley and to establish a mission in Kabul. One British army, the Kurrum Valley Field Force under General Sir Frederick Roberts, remained in Afghanistan while the others returned to India.
Major Sir Louis Cavagnari was placed in charge of the mission and was soon telling Yakub Khan what to do. However, on September 3 1879, Cavagnari, his staff and more than 600 Afghans were massacred at the embassy. Retribution was demanded and Roberts, with his newly created Kabul Field Force of four regiments of cavalry, seven of infantry and four batteries of guns, set out for Kabul on September 27. With the force was the 67th.
The 67th, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Benjamin Knowles, had joined Roberts’s force in April 1879 after a 2,703 mile journey by rail followed by a march of 234 miles. Between then and September the regiment was kept busy building roads, while horse shows, sports days, theatricals and a band concert helped to enliven the monotony. Some enterprising soldiers even climbed Sika Ram, at 15,620ft the highest peak of the Safed Koh.
All this changed following the slaughter of the Cavagnari mission. In late September all eight of the regiment’s companies assembled at Ali Kheyl for the 60-mile march to Kabul. The regiment was allotted the important task of guarding the route and the army’s baggage. Supplies were transported along rough, narrow roads by pack animals, mainly camels, and these columns made a perfect target for marauding tribesmen. The regiment missed the engagement which took place at Charasiab but its actions in support of the assault force in picquetting and route and baggage guarding more than compensated.
Roberts entered Kabul on October 12, the 67th and the Band – which had marched all the way with the regiment – doing the honours. Shortly afterwards the Amir Yakub Khan abdicated, leaving Roberts to assume ‘the government of the whole of Afghanistan’. Roberts’s position was insecure and he needed to be assured of routes back to India. Accordingly, a brigade which included the 67th was ordered to reconnoitre the passes to the east of the city.
On November 10 a 30-strong party under Captain Arthur Poole went to a village called Doaba where they were engaged by some 800-1,000 tribesmen. Poole conducted a brilliant action with superb shooting, especially by Corporal (later Sergeant) Woolley, the regimental crackshot. The 67th suffered three dead, apparently captured and mutilated by tribesmen. Some years later Rudyard Kipling was to write of this barbaric practice:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to God like a soldier.
Further engagements around Kabul took place in December at Mir Karez and, notably, on the Chardeh river. Here, British cavalry and horse gunners had come under attack by around 15,000 Afghans and a number of guns had had to be abandoned. Coming on to the scene the 67th deployed into line and advanced firing volleys. The enemy were scattered and pursued for several miles. Meanwhile, the 67th baggage guard extracted the abandoned guns and hauled them to the safety of Sherpur.
With large numbers of Afghans now marching on Kabul, Roberts decided to bring all his forces, some 5,000 men, to Sherpur. This was completed by the evening of December 14 at which point the town was besieged by an enemy force estimated at 50,000. In the bitter cold, the defenders held out despite sickness, a shortage of supplies and a total lack of communication with the outside world.
The main attack came on December 23 when the Afghans violently assaulted Sherpur on all sides, but to no avail. Later the same day, heliograph signals told of the approach of a relief column under General Gough which finally arrived on Christmas Eve. The British returned to Kabul to find the city sacked by the Afghan army and unspeakable atrocities visited on its inhabitants, especially Hindhus.
From December 27-31 1879 the 67th was part of a ‘punitive expedition’ sent out to Kohistan, north of Kabul. No enemy were to be found but the brigade did exact some revenge by laying waste to vineyards and orchards in the fertile Koh Deman valley and destroying the Afghan forts at Baba-Khush-Ghar.
The 67th returned to garrison in Sherpur in early January 1880 before moving to Jugdulluck in May. The regiment returned to the Kabul area in mid-June. In July the British were defeated at Kandahar and Maiwand. Roberts responded by collecting together a division (which did not include the 67th) which left Kabul on August 8 for the famous march to Kandahar. His victory there over the Afghan army finally brought victory to the south of the country.
On August 11 the 67th, with other units, left Kabul and marched back to India via the Khyber Pass, arriving in Bangalore on November 7. This was the last campaign of the 67th (South Hampshire) Regiment. It was fought on the eve of the regiment’s amalgamation with the 37th (North Hampshire) Regiment. For the 67th the Second Afghan War was a success. The regiment had proved to be a hard marching, outstandingly good shooting and operationally adaptable unit.
Three soldiers were killed in action during the campaign and three others died of wounds. A further 72 died between 1878 and 1880, the largest single cause being cholera in September 1880 during the march out of Afghanistan.
A number of officers and men received awards. The Commanding Officer, Lt Col Knowles, was awarded the Companion of the Bath (CB) and three NCOs – Colour Sergeant Wheeler, Sergeant Heath and Sergeant Woolley – received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). Major William Kingsley was made a Brevet Lieutenant Colonel and Captains Poole, Jarvis and Jackson were appointed Brevet Majors.
For all those who served in the campaign there was a Medal for Afghanistan with appropriate clasps. Clasps for the regiment’s actions were:
There are many examples of the Medal for Afghanistan in the Regimental Museum in Winchester, which also holds Knowles’s medals (including, uniquely, a medal from the Red Cross Society for his work for that Society during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71). As Major General Sir Charles Knowles KCB he was a later Colonel of the Hampshire Regiment.