The Siege of Kandahar
As recorded by Assistant Superintendent of Telegraphy
Hugh Theodore Pinhey

The transcript for the following document has been very kindly contributed by Martin Parnham and family, and may not be copied without their prior permission. Introduction and annotations by Garen Ewing.


After their defeat at Maiwand on 27th July 1880, the British force at Kandahar withdrew into the city and held out against Ayub Khan's forces and local tribesmen until they were reinforced by General Roberts' relieving force from Kabul on 31 August.

Hugh Pinhey was an Assistant Superintendent in the telegraphy department, but for the duration of the siege was given the rank of lieutenant and assigned to the 4th Bombay Rifle Corps, who had arrived at the city shortly before the news of Maiwand broke. The Bombay Rifles, commanded by Colonel W. Bannerman, were detailed to guard the Herat (east) and Kabul (west) faces of the city, and daily furnished working and covering parties employed outside the walls.

The following letter was written to Hugh's mother, Mary Anne Pinhey (née Pellew, 1828-1910), and was written over a period of two weeks until it could be sent once the siege was lifted. As for Hugh himself, he was one of the few Afghan War veterans to survive into the 1950s, dying aged 95 in February 1953. His younger brother was Sir Alexander Fleetwood Pinhey K.C.S.I. (1861-1916), at first of the King's Liverpool Regiment, and later Private Secretary to Lord Minto and acting Resident in Haidarabad.

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The interior of the citadel in Kandahar with the tomb of Ahmed Shah in the background (left).

August 20th 1880.

My Dearest Mother,

Is not this your birthday? I am very much afraid that there does not seem to be any chance whatever of your getting this letter for a long time, but if we ever get out of this, I will despatch immediately, so I will wish you very many happy returns of the day.

I hope you have not been very anxious about me, but it is certainly a more or less dreadful time. It began all of a sudden, and since we have been driven in here and surrounded, we have had several calamities already. Last Monday we made a sortie to capture a strong post of the enemies quite close to the walls, and were quite unsuccessful, losing seven Officers on the spot, including the General commanding the attack, General Brooke1. Owing to all communication being stopped, I suppose you will have heard very little of the first and great defeat at Maiwand, quite the most complete defeat and most disastrous retreat, (on Kandahar), I suppose, of modern times. It was an awful sight to see the fugitives coming in, such as they were, in ones and twos all day, wounded, crawling in as best they could, any number having died of thirst and exhaustion on the road. But it would take a long time to narrate all I saw on that eventful day. Perhaps the most disgraceful thing that happened was that there was a panic here, and our men deserted the cantonments, and came into the Citadel, leaving a great part of the kit behind, to be looted of course by the people of the country round. The loss in the Maiwand battle was 21 officers and 1100 men, not counting followers. The 66th Regt alone lost 10 officers dead, the 1st Bombay Native Infantry 2, the Artillery 2, of which one is supposed to be a prisoner, Jacob’s Rifles 3, Cavalry 1, and 3 others2. It is impossible to say now how the disaster is to be accounted for, but it was probably due to very bad Generalship, small numbers, and the breaking of Jacob’s Rifles just at the important moment. The cavalry refused also to charge, which is in itself bad enough to account for anything. Our guns were advanced too far and two were taken, which are being fired at us at the present moment. Ayoub and his army came up pretty soon, and the country rose immediately, and we are helpless till help comes from without.

Since the siege began the enemy shell us every now and again, not having done much damage so far, and we have made two unsuccessful attacks on fortified villages near the walls, in the latter of which we lost seven officers, one parson, and 185 men3. In all these battles the enemy lose heavily, for instance in the first battle they lost some 3000 men, and the other day a great many, but they are at present like the sand of the sea, and all their villages and every available wall have been loopholed. Firing goes on nearly all day from and at the walls, but we have made ourselves so strong, and improved the fortifications so much that we could, I think, beat off any number in an attack. We number rather over 3000 fighting men all told, and we have eleven good guns4, whereas the enemy have some 36 guns, but only 4 or 5 which fire good shells, or do damage at a decent distance. The rest are mainly small smooth bore guns, very few of which they have dared to bring up to within firing distance. They are very frightened of our four big guns, which will carry some 4 miles at a push and carry very big shells, we have done great execution with these already.

I am attached to the 4th Bombay Rifles as a Lieutenant at present, which is of course great fun, as I have been under fire in that capacity, but just now I am doing Engineer’s duty on the walls, fortifying, repairing, and returning to my Regt. only for fighting. By the bye, being under fire is a curious sensation at first don’t you know, but I don’t care about it nearly so much as I should have thought, am getting quite accustomed to the familiar whiz of the bullet near my head, for they shoot at me in a rude way even when I am at work on the ramparts. I am an old soldier now of some 3 weeks standing. This last sortie of ours has taught us that we must wait patiently without larks till relief comes, which, we hear, is coming both from Cabul and India. But we dont know anything except by report, as all communication is cut off. We are not short of food ourselves yet, but our horses are beginning to feed on one straw a day as it were. We are all, I think, even the multitude of wounded pretty cheerful under the melancholy circumstances. Our most sincere wish is that none of the enemy shells will pitch on or near the hospital huts as they luckily have not so far. They burst all over the shop as it were, but have not done much damage so far. If the enemy had come on at first, before the panic was over, we should have been easily taken, but now we have made ourselves so strong that we are quite sanguine about the attack on the walls by any force. I am awfully well and not uncheerful by any means, so far.

This is the 4th week of the siege, August 24th. Nothing very interesting or important has happened since I last lay my pen to this letter. We have not been rash enough to make any more sorties and the enemy have been very quiet, that is with their big guns. We still have various rumours about the relieving force, but it has not come as soon as expected, and some of us are getting a little impatient. The enemy have a very curious mode of tactics which we can't fathom. One day they swarm in one direction and another day in another, and we cannot make out exactly if they are going to make a night attack on us, or whether they think they are starving us out, or whether they are hesitating at the last moment with their prize before them, and contemplate hooking it. There is some private correspondence going on between our Political and Aiyoub, but there are only the merest conjectures as to what it is all about, whether about the Prisoner Aiyoub is supposed to have, or whether he is trying to come to terms with us about the final settlement. One thing is certain, he has managed wonderfully well to keep us without any communication with the outside. We let a man in this morning who says he is one of our spies, and that Aiyoub has just heard that Genl. Roberts has today marched from Khelat i Gilzai, about 70 miles or seven marches from this. We see the enemy today, such of them as we can see, for they seem to be getting out of sight somewhere, making for the direction of the Herat road, so rumours are immediately circulated that Aiyoub is off to Herat. It is also reported that his reserve ammunition arrives from Herat today, and that now we are in for real jam. What can one therefore believe?5

August 25th. Yesterday we thought that the enemy might be moving and today a cavalry reconnaissance was made early in the morning to see what had taken place. We find that the enemy’s camp is no longer in sight, but they appear to have gone over the Kotal to the north west6, leaving a cavalry picquet on the Kotal, so we suppose that they must have encamped just the other side. The funny thing is that all the villages which annoyed us so much are empty this morning, and the guns which were in position have been taken away. All this is very puzzling7. We got into the village where the fight was the other morning, and have found dead bodies of our men, mostly unrecognizable, and awfully mutilated, which is not surprising, as we saw the brutes rush out on the dead, and such of the wounded as we could not get, and mutilate them before our eyes immediately after the fight. A burying party goes out this afternoon. There are about 17 bodies lying in a ditch without any heads. How are we to show mercy to these men when we catch them? General Brooke’s body could not be recognised for certain, but Capt. Cruikshank’s was just recognizable, and Col. Newport, whom you know, was not so badly treated as the others, and they actually left his gold sleeve links on. I believe that a glowing account has been written by those responsible for this disastrous sortie, but it is not the opinion of anybody else in Garrison 1 as we hardly think that it is satisfactory in storming a fortified position to begin by warning the enemy by heavy cannonading, especially when it was meant for a surprise8. The result of this was that the main body of the enemy had plenty of time to collect from all round before we got in. It is also scarcely satisfactory that an action which they would have us believe was rather a victory than otherwise, we should lose 7 officers killed and 6 wounded, one of whom has since died, and 2 or 3 others not getting on satisfactorily, 185 men killed and wounded, added to which the position was not held, and the retreat was precipitous, and the General killed. We sorely want a special correspondent up here to expose a great many things9, indecision being the worst trait in the Generalship displayed. Col Daubeny has got General Brooke’s Brigade and so is now a Brigadier General. By the way, some officers are writing an account of the whole thing beginning with the fight at and the retreat from Maiwand, and, I hear, in bitter strains. No news of General Roberts or Phayre today as yet.

August 27th. The enemy are still keeping at a much more respectful distance, and we make bold enough to go into the villages round lately held by them, to get whatever can be found, especially forage for horses which is getting horribly scarce. I made a raid this morning to try and get something green for myself and friends to eat, and we managed to loot some cucumbers and a few figs and some gramshaws10 or what they are called. The enemy have now entrenched themselves about 2 miles off to the N.W. over a Kotal, and their picquets are in sight on the Kotal. They evidently have kabar11 of a relieving force at hand. A letter got in from General Phayre dated Quetta August 18th last night, in which he said that he was only waiting for the 15th Hussars which he expected next day, to march on Kandahar, so we may I suppose expect him very soon now. We shall have some difficulty in getting at the enemy where they are now, even if they dont hook it, but I do hope we may catch them and give them an awful hiding, and take back the colours and guns. This Division is so crippled that I am afraid that the Bombay Division of Occupation for 1880 won't have much to do with whatever victories we may gain hereafter. The chief part, I suppose, will go down at once with the Autumnal Sick Convoy.

The Eedgah Gate at Kandahar 1880, this is the gate the British retreated into the city through, including those returning from Maiwand, as the others gates were closed by order, causing quite some chaos.

August 29th. The day before yesterday at midday General Robert’s Advanced Guard of 2 Regiments of cavalry signalled with us on the Heliograph, they being about 14 miles on the Cabul road. They told us that General Roberts with his main Body were 18 miles behind them. They are all now about 15 miles off, where they are waiting to settle matters with us. We signal to each other now all day. They are a very large Army, Viz. 4 regiments of cavalry, of which the 9th British Lancers is one, 3 Regiments of British Infantry, and 9 of Native Infantry, with 18 guns. General Phayre is also coming up and should be here by the 2nd, as he starts from Chaman tomorrow, and he has 20 guns, 3000 Natives and 2000 Europeans. Besides which the Kelat i Gilzai Garrison is coming in which numbers nearly 1500 men, so that we shall not be short of 20000 fighting men here in a few days. Aiyoub does not seem to be inclined to cave in, as we see his men working very busily at entrenchments, at which we are all delighted. General Roberts has lamed 500 of his men by his rapid march, who will come into the city tomorrow. We are getting awfully cockahoop here now, having slackened some of our guards, and having taken our Field guns off the walls ready to send out. We also now keep the Union Jack floating over the Citadel in a most defiant manner, all of which is a very different thing to what was going on ten days back12. The staff are reported to know all about the Enemy’s numbers and disposition now, and the Ghazis are again said to be flocking to Ayoub’s camp. We ought to have some fun soon. I suppose we shant keep Kandahar after all this. I am afraid provisions will become very scarce with all these mouths, unless General Phayre opens our communications with India on his way up. I wonder if he will bring up the mails. Just think of 5 weeks mails. What a day we shall have when they arrive. I wonder if old Q Alick has passed. I hope somebody wrote to tell me immediately. Dear me, it is horrible to have got into one’s seventh sheet, but I am afraid there will be a lot more to add before communications are restored, and I hope you may not find it uninteresting, as I don't suppose you will. Some of the Officers who were wounded in the fight before the walls are not getting on well, and one, Maj. Vandeleur has died. Col. Shewell Dy. Commissary General is said not to be in a satisfactory state. An awful death roll it has been of the last 5 weeks. About 30 Officers.

September 3rd. I write today with a sort of triumphant swagger, as General Roberts with his 10000 men came in here on the 31st., had a small fight the same day, and the big affair next day, when the enemy were utterly beaten and dispersed, their camp, kit, and 31 guns taken including the 2 which were taken from us. The guns are composed of all sorts, from Krupp’s and Armstrongs downwards. The fight was won in the following manner. The enemy were encamped behind a range of hills about 2 miles to the N.W. of Kandahar, and between them and us was a Kotal, were they had guns and a strong picquet, nearly impossible to storm in front, but there is a way round the hills at the west end of them, by which the Argandab river enters Kandahar by channels. The Bengal army went round here, and stormed several large villages on the way, while the Bombay Division right on the front of the Kotal and played upon it with the big guns, thereby diverting the attention of a large part of the enemy. When the enemy saw they were taken in the flank by the Bengal Troops, they fled from the Kotal, and so the Bombay went forward on it. After this the enemy scattered in all directions, and though the cavalry pursued, not more than 500 were cut up by them. We captured 31 guns and, I suppose, killed 7 or 800 altogether13. Our losses were rather heavy, 175 killed and wounded14. But they, in their own opinion, saved the whole of us from being massacred, which we must have been if they had not made a most splendid and rapid march from Cabul. We have found the enemy’s scaling ladders with which they were going to take us. About 200 of them splendidly made from trees in the Argandab valley, but rather heavy. I am now cutting them up for telegraph poles. There is not a post left on the telegraph line between this and Chaman, 78 miles off, so my work is pretty well cut out just now I can tell you, as my boss15 is restoring communication himself, and I am procuring material. I went to the enemy’s camp on the day of the battle, and had a good look round.

Of course I resigned my commission on the day General Roberts relieved us. Provisions are not plentiful, but supplies are beginning to come in again now. The European part of the besieged Army are not at all healthy after the siege as you may imagine. I am said to be looking thin, but I never felt better in my life. But the soldiers are dying very frequently. I think they ought to relieve me from field service now, but I can't grumble if they don't as it is such a business getting a relieving Officer up here. And, besides, all things considered, I am as happy as I care to be. I would not have missed all the experiences of the last 2 months for anything now that they are over, but I do not hope to be in so critical a position again for some time. There is a rumour that a mail is going to arrive today so everybody is very eager. I hope you have not given me up and ceased writing. A mail goes out soon too, so we are nearly at the end of this. The Bengal Division is a very picked Army. The European troops are the 72nd Highlanders, 92nd. Ditto, 60th Rifles, and 9th Lancers. Both the Highland Regiments had all the fighting the other day, nearly all the loss, and fought as their wont is. It is very sad to think of the awful losses the Besieged have had, a few of the most sad being General Brooke, Col. Shewell, Capt. Cruikshanks R.E., Rev. Gordon, and about 30 other Officers. The sortie from the walls was a very sad affair, and will plant the 17th of August forever on ones memory16. I am awful short of baccy, only farthing cake stuff and a clay pipe. No cheroots. No clothes whatever fit to be seen in, and all my trousers worn out with hard riding. It is quite time I made myself scarce. Think how welcome grapes are again or any other green food, I am getting quite greedy about it. Please pass this round to everybody who would like to see it as I cannot write another just now.

Very best love to all from

P.S. Mails arrived last night, the first for 6 weeks. Imagine the gloating over them that went on. Everybody awfully sulky if disturbed, especially me.


Brigadier-General Henry Francis Brooke, killed in the sortie to Deh Khoja 16 Aug 1880 while trying to rescue Captain Cruikshank during the retreat. [return]
2 Official losses at Maiwand amount to 21 officers and 948 men killed. The 66th lost 12 officers, the 1st Bombay Infantry 2, Royal Horse Artillery 2, Jacob's Rifles 3, 3rd Bombay Cavalry 1, and 1 Captain of the Bombay Staff Corps. The prisoner taken was Lieutenant Hector MacLaine of E/B R.H.A., who was subsequently killed on 1st Sep. [return]
3 The sortie on Deh Khoja saw 106 killed, including 8 officers and the parson (Rev. G. M. Gordon), and 188 wounded. [return]
4 Kandahar held 13 guns for defence, 8 9-pounders, 1 6-pounder and 4 40-pounders. [return]
5 After the battle of Deh Khoja, Ayub Khan's forces were in disagreement, with some wanting to abandon the siege (including Ayub himself). Many villagers who had joined him from a distance returned home, while those closer to Kandahar wanted to stay and fight, fearing British justice if they capitulated. His Generals persuaded him to stay and fight, and Ayub sent for fresh ammunition from Herat on 24th August. [return]
6 The Baba-Wali Kotal. [return]
7 Ayub Khan knew of General Roberts' advance on Kandahar by 23rd Aug, and knew it was close by 24th. [return]
8 The initial plan for a sortie on Deh Khoja had been put forward by Lt.-Col. John Hills and was to be a surprise attack. In the end General Primrose, in charge at Kandahar, went with Brookes' plan, which included opening up with the guns firing, and also splitting the force into three. The final part of the disaster was to sound the retreat which galvanised the Afghans for a final push on the retreating British. [return]
9 It was due to correspondents being critical of things in Afghanistan (especially towards Roberts) that they were banned from the second phase of the war - with one or two sanctioned exceptions (eg. Hensman). [return]
10 Probably means 'crenshaw', a greenish-yellow sweet melon. [return]
11 Kabar, or Khabar means 'news'. [return]
12 This is an interesting comment as the morale of the Kandahar garrison and the flying of the British flag caused some discussion later on. In his autobiography, Roberts stated he was reminded of the besieged people of Agra in the Indian Mutiny, who "never even hoisted the Union Jack until the relieving force was close at hand". This prompted a letter in The Times from the Rev. Cane, who was present at Kandahar, claiming that a Union Jack was not found until 25 August, and was then hoisted. Hills and Massy also wrote letters, and Hills dealt with the subject in more detail in his 1900 book 'The Bombay Field Force'. [return]
13 Hensman estimates 1200 Afghan dead. [return]
14 British casualties were 46 killed and 202 wounded, totalling 248 casualties. [return]
15 Possibly Mr. Boteler, Superintendent of Telegraphs (and attached to 19th Bombay Infantry during siege). [return]
16 The Deh Khoja sortie occurred on 16th August. [return]

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