The Achilles’ Heel of the British Empire
“For fifty years, Afghanistan has inspired the British people with a feeling of almost superstitious apprehension,” Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, remarked of the wild, mountainous country. “It is only with great reluctance that Englishmen can be persuaded to have anything to do with so fateful a region.” Curzon went on to conclude that “Afghanistan has long been the Achilles’ heel of Great Britain in the East.”
The Afghan people, sandwiched between the Russian and Britain Empires as they vied for control of Central Asia during the 19th century, proved to be one of the most stubborn adversaries to colonial expansion. The Afghans and British would face off in three wars – the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), and Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919). The last war led to Afghanistan’s independence.
The most well-known of these Anglo-Afghan conflicts was the first war. (Especially familiar to those who have read George MacDonald Fraser’s first Flashman novel.) In January 1842, a British column composed of 12,000 soldiers and civilians was annihilated in a mere seven days. In the preceding months, the Afghans successfully isolated the British stronghold at Kabul by cleverly capturing surrounding outposts, cutting off the garrison from its main commissariat. Under the direction of the Waterloo veteran Major General William Elphinstone, the British abandoned Kabul and retreated 116 miles east through the Hindu Kush toward Jalalabad. Bad weather, poor morale, a general sense of panic, and persistent Afghan attacks all contributed to the disintegration of the British column. On the seventh day, those that remained made their last stand on a rocky, dome-shaped hill at Gandamak (known as Ferenghi Ghundai to the Afghans). The British would never forget the calamity of 1842.
Asia’s Bold Mountaineers
The Afghans were proud and fiercely independent. They lived a spartan life enduring extreme climates and conditions, making them resilient and deadly enemies. Afghanistan had no national army in 1842. Instead, feudal chieftains delivered men to serve as soldiers in time of war. The civilians-turned soldiers quickly adapted to their new roles with little or no training. Lieutenant General George Lawrence, who spent four decades in India, wrote how ironic it was that these Afghan irregulars produced one of the greatest calamities in British history. “To our deep humiliation,” Lawrence wrote, “we found that instead of being stalwart and devoted clansmen, the troops who had chased the British banner from the field chiefly consisted of tradesmen and artizans from Cabul [Kabul].”
In hand-to-hand combat, the Afghan soldier was equally as fearless and fanatical as the deadly Mahdist warriors of Sudan. Author Donald Featherstone suitably declared that these combatants showed a ferocity “equal to anything found in the Old Testament.” Major Waller Ashe, chronicling one of his encounters with the Afghans during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, described their ferocity, courage, and skill in battle. “[They] dashed forward with terrible valour upon our bayonets,” he noted, “their shields ringing against our barrels, and their faces smeared with gunpowder and blood.” He continued that these bold mountaineers had “by a sort of natural instinct discovered at one of our weak points, and by feints upon our centre, and furious assaults upon our flanks during the whole of our retreat across the plain, not only inflicted a tremendous loss upon us, but at one point seriously endangered our position.”
When engaged in battle, the Afghans gave no quarter or expected it in return. Wounded British soldiers or prisoners could expect a gruesome death if they fell into enemy hands. In his 1892 poem The Young British Soldier, Rudyard Kipling conveyed the ferocity of the warfare raged on the Afghan frontier to his readers. He cautioned them that rather than face mutilation and torture, a soldier better reach for his rifle:
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
The Weapons They Carried
While their hand-to-hand weapons were primitive and outdated, the Afghans were effective at using them, slicing off the legs of enemy horses or decapitating and disemboweling opponents. They carried a wide array of weapons – large knives, short swords, sabers, axes, spears, improvised weapons, and small, round shields. General Ian Hamilton, at the time serving as a junior officer, vividly recalled the “dust, shouts, shots, clash of steel” of a close-range frontier skirmish with the Afghans. Somewhat of an adrenaline junkie, Hamilton fondly noted this nameless clash was “a favorite picture amongst the many than come back to me in my dreams.”
Surprisingly, the Afghans had better firearms in many instances than their English enemies. The most popular gun was the jezail, a long-barreled flintlock with a range up to roughly 800 yards. The firearm, while outdated, was far more accurate and had a greater range than the smooth-bore muskets most British soldiers carried. The Afghans, using the elevation and protection of rocky boulders in the mountains to their advantage, were able to snip at their adversaries with deadly results. Lieutenant Vincent Eyre (later Major General) referred to the Afghans as “perhaps the best marksmen in the world.” Afghan soldiers also carried captured Snider and Enfield rifles, Brown Bess and Brunswick muskets, and Martini-Henry rifles.
European-influenced military uniforms were adopted during the 1830s. But most soldiers sported diverse outfits, such as red tunics and dark brown woolen uniforms. Mixed in were confiscated Russian or British uniforms. Donald Featherstone’s Victoria’s Enemies: An A-Z of British Colonial Warfare (1989), Richard Macrory’s (Illustrator Peter Dennis) The First Afghan War 1839-42: Invasion, Catastrophe and Retreat (2016), Robert Wilkinson-Latham’s (Illustrator Angus McBride) North-West Frontier 1837-1947 (1977), and Ian Knight’s (Illustrator Richard Scollins) Queen Victoria's Enemies (3) (1990) are some useful books for help identifying Afghan attire. (Here’s a handy painting guide by Christy Beall from Wargames, Soldiers and Strategy’s YouTube channel.) In addition, members of Facebook’s wargaming community recommended Russian Vasily Vereshchagin’s artwork and John Burke’s photographs taken during the Second Anglo-Afghan War for additional inspiration.
Wargamers Atlantic’s Plastic Afghan Warriors
Wargames Atlantic’s 28mm hard plastics Afghan warriors are a welcomed addition to any wargamer interested in fighting the three Anglo-Afghan Wars. (Depending on how you choose to arm them, the Afghan models are also suitable for periods as far back as the 18th century and well into the 1920s). Each model is finely sculpted and richly detailed. Forty plastic warriors come in a boxed set, allowing the buyer to get the biggest bang for his or her buck. Numerous weapons are included on each spur, ranging from edged weapons to firearms – pulwars, Khyber swords, daggers, shields, muskets, jezzails, and Martini-Henrys. I’m especially excited about the Martini-Henrys. I can’t wait to get my Afghan force built, painted, and fielded so that I can reenact the famed 1842 British retreat from Kabul.
Thanks Frank for an excellent look at the Afghans in history and in plastic!
You can get yours here:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Frank Jastrzembski is a historian and author writing about history's forgotten. You can see his books and links to other work on his website here.