In Focus: Kabul 1879

Roger Hudson explains a photographic panorama, taken at the beginning of the Second Afghan War, of the ancient and forbidding fortress of Bala Hissar.

The Bala Hissar fortress in Kabul was already centuries old when William the Conqueror built the Tower of London. Here it is, showing its age, in 1879, in a panorama that John Burke created by joining together two of his photographs. He had accompanied the British force invading Afghanistan the previous year, after a British mission was refused entry. This, the beginning of the Second Afghan War, had been prompted by the appearance of a Russian mission in Kabul in the middle of 1878.

In recent years the First Afghan War of 1838-42 has been brandished regularly by journalists and commentators as an awful warning of what happens when others interfere in Afghanistan. The Second has not, which seems strange since it was as ill-advised as the First, even if its military outcome was not a humiliating disaster. In the 1840s there had been 2,000 miles between the Russian and British India frontiers; by the 1870s Russian penetration of Central Asia meant the gap had shrunk to less than 500 miles. This was what gave strength to the arguments of the ‘forward’ school, that the safety of India required the absorption of Afghanistan before Russia moved in there. In mid-1879 it seemed that this target had been achieved: a treaty had been signed with the Emir Mohammed Yaqub Khan by which, in return for a subsidy, Afghanistan’s foreign affairs were to be handled by Britain, with Sir Louis Cavagnani installed as Resident. The main British forces were withdrawn but Cavagnani retained an escort of about 80 men from the Corps of Guides, one of the elite irregular units which emerged from the Sikh Wars of the 1840s and the Indian Mutiny of 1857. However, just as the Resident Sir William Macnaghten and others had been slaughtered in 1841, so Cavagnani and all but one of the guides were killed when the Afghans turned on them in September, despite the ferocious resistance they put up around the residency buildings in the Bala Hissar.

The British response was swift and General Sir Frederick Roberts fought his way back to Kabul with 2,500 men in October, hanging 49 Afghans in revenge and threatening to demolish the Bala Hissar, only for its magazine mysteriously to blow up a few days later. He moved his forces to an unfinished cantonment at Sherpur north of the city, where, in December, they survived a siege lasting several weeks. The emir abdicated and Afghanistan went quiet. Roberts dismantled part of the Bala Hissar before making the remainder properly defensible. Ayub, the brother of the emir, rose up  and defeated  a British force, of which nearly 1,000 were killed, in the west of the country at Maiwand in July 1880. Roberts responded with his much-lauded march to Kandahar, in which his force of 10,000 men covered 313 miles in 23 days. They defeated Ayub the next day. 

Gladstone, the new prime minister, committed to an ethical foreign policy, determined the war must end, so Abdur Rahman, a claimant acceptable to the Russians, was made emir. There were to be no more Residents and British forces withdrew. But Abdur Rahman had an English governess for his children, an Irish dentist and a Cockney engineer making artillery for him and he was no more prepared to give the Russians free rein than he was the British. When, in 1884, the Russians advanced from Merv to Panjdeh, 200 miles from Herat, his forces confronted them. The Afghans were defeated, but this turned out to be the last Russian throw in the region until 1979. Assisted by the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway, they turned their ambitions away from India and towards the Far East.