Lord Roberts' famous march from Kabul to Kandahar August 1880
by Garen Ewing

"It has been decided by the Government of India that a force shall proceed with all possible despatch from Cabul towards Khelat-i-Ghilzai and Candahar for the relief of the British garrison in those places, now threatened by a large Afghan army under the leadership of Sirdar Mahomed Ayub Khan."
- General Roberts, order of 8 August 1880, Sherpur, Kabul

Above: The citadel at Kandahar, British headquarters during the siege of the city by Ayub Khan's forces.

In July 1880, political manoeuvres were being made to pull British forces out of the bubbling cauldron that was Afghanistan. In northern Kabul, where General Stewart had marched from Kandahar to join Roberts three months earlier, plans were being made for a return to Peshawar with the co-operation of the new Amir, Abdurrahman.

By the end of the month the bazaars of Kabul were buzzing with the news of a great British defeat in the south - Maiwand. On 27 July General Burrows had clashed with the advancing army of Ayub Khan from Herat, a son of the late Amir Sher Ali who saw himself as rightful ruler of Afghanistan. British losses were heavy and the bedraggled survivors retreated into Kandahar, where, within a few days, they were besieged by Ayub and his Generals.

"...the present question is the relief of Candahar and the defeat of Ayub. I have a fine force ready for the work, and Bobs would go in command of it. I know it would beat Ayub into a cocked hat; but there are objections to sending a force away by itself through a country which is sure to be hostile, and we should rouse animosities, which would bring about further complications, and, perhaps, prevent our withdrawl from Cabul. Still, if the work cannot be done from the Quetta side, our troops must be employed, whatever the risks and inconveniences may be."
- General Donald Stewart, Gough's camp, Kabul

A rescue mission was quickly formulated. General Roberts would take his best regiments on a forced march from Kabul to Kandahar, while Stewart would oversee the rest of the Kabul garrison back to India. Meanwhile, General Phayre, in the south, would march from Quetta - he was closer and might get to Kandahar quickest to relieve the besieged citadel.

This was impetus enough for Roberts to get there first, but speed was of the essence as there was no telling in what state the Kandahar garrison was holding out. With this in mind, Roberts ordered his troops to march as lightly as possible - each soldier would be allowed only 20-30lbs of kit, no wheeled transport or artillery would be taken, only light Mountain Batteries. Some thought this madness - it was Ayub's guns that had been one of the deciding factors at Maiwand, and worse still, the marching army had the possibility of meeting him and his victorious hordes on the way up to Ghazni or Kabul. The forced march would be out of communication for most of the time, with no base of operations behind it, and an uncertain strength in both allies and enemy in front.

"The trumpets sounded before dawn, and at an early hour we fell in before the Bala Hissar fortress. The Kabul citadel was soon hidden in the willow-lined avenue leading towards Sherpur across the Kabul river. For the last time we passed Sher Ali's cantonment, where nods and farewells were exchanged... We then passed on through the Deh Mazung gorge, under the grim Asmai height; the Kabul river was recrossed for the last time, and the city left behind without regret."
- Surgeon Major Joshua Duke, 3rd Punjab Cavalry

On August 7th the force of 10,000 soldiers and 8,000 followers moved out of the Sherpur cantonments to Bala Hissar, and on the following day the march proper began. The longer route through the fertile Logar Valley was chosen, rather than a more direct approach through Maidan, as this way they could gather supplies on the way and avoid getting too close to any dangers that may spring from Kabul. The exit to the valley saw a tough climb through the Zamburak Kotal where the road narrowed and baggage trains got entangled, a recurring problem.

Above: Through the Zamburak Kotal.

The next major stop was the city of Ghazni, another possible danger from an excitable population. There turned out to be no threat from the city - largely thanks to the orders of the new Amir who wanted Ayub Khan dealt with as much as the British did, and the journey continued, now onto stony open plains, where the dust was kicked up by the marching mass and the heat and sandstorms really started to tell.

Conditions were hard. Most of the force was woken up at 1 or 2 in the morning to start off by 4, when it was freezing cold and pitch black, making it all the more difficult to load up the pack animals. By the time they stopped at 1 or 2 in the afternoon (though often the rear guard didn't get in until 5 or 6 hours later) the temperatures had risen to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, with no shade and a scarcity of water. Sore feet was the main complaint, and the casualty and sick list slowly increased as the march went on. Six camels had been taken to start with for use by the field hospital, but another 171 were purchased along the way.

"Old Indians declare, even during the more severe marches with small parties in India, that they have never seen anything like this collapse of native followers. The explanation is that the unpopularity of service in Afghanistan made it necessary, in the first instance, to engage poor recruits, whose constitutions were already shattered by the hardships of the winter campaign. But the health and spirit of the troops were certainly wonderful. Considering the quantity of unripe fruit and filthy-looking water swallowed by Sepoys and Englishmen indiscriminately, it was a standing subject of surprise to me that we were not smitten with some epidemic..."
- Lt. Charles Robinson, 8th Foot

The marching army paid for just about everything they took from the Afghans en route - grain, fresh animals, and even houses for firewood were requisitioned, the tribespeople seemingly happy to oblige. For some the going was too hard - followers would give up and lie down anywhere they could, thirty or so going missing throughout the journey, and the rear guard having to force them on if they found them, as well as pick up thrown loads of baggage. Three soldiers actually took their own lives, one of the 72nd Highlanders, and two sepoys from the Indian infantry.

By the time the troops reached the garrison at Khelat-i-Ghilzai they had averaged 15 or 16 miles a day, sometimes going as high as 20, double what a regular campaigning army would sensibly march. Here Roberts was able to learn the latest - the Kandahar citadel was not in immediate danger, perhaps thanks to a sortie out into the village of Deh Koja, which, though not a military success, did cause Ayub Khan to withdraw further away from the city. As for General Phayre, he was nowhere to be seen - transport problems, sick troops and bandits had caused his relieving column no end of trouble, and he was still days away from Kandahar.

"...we got along very slowly owing to the way the 1st Brigade dawdled, the Cavalry baggage as usual lapped round and surrounded us. I stopped it, but it was no use, and by the time we got in, it was all round us again. The march of this force is that of a disorganised rabble, an Afghan, seeing it, said we were like an Afghan army, whereas Stewart's was like a European."
- General Charles MacGregor, 3rd Brigade, Tirandaz

Now Roberts could rest for a day and take shorter marches. In another week he was at the gates of Kandahar (though having to force himself onto a horse to arrive with some dignity, his last part of the trek was taken in a dhoolie as a fever had overcome him) and he immediately drew up plans to attack Ayub Khan the very next day.

September 1st saw the Battle of Kandahar. Ayub Khan was defeated, having to bolt his camp and, chased for a short while by the cavalry, find his way back to Herat where he could gather himself and make plans for an attack on the city another day (almost exactly a year later, as it turned out, but this time against the regiments of Abdurrahman). The British went back to Maiwand to bury their dead, and finally left the city, and Afghanistan, about six months later. The soldiers that had marched with Roberts were sent back to India within a couple of months, while Roberts himself took a trip to England to recover properly from his illness, and to find himself feted as a national hero, titled Lord Roberts of Kandahar.

Above: Roberts returned to England a hero, but many of the soldiers from the march still had duties in India, and went on to expeditions in South Africa and Egypt before returning to their home country.

Other resources on this site: | regiments that marched |


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