Today, as most of us are submerged under a flood of texts and images of the lightning blitzkrieg by the Afghan warlords, my mind flashes to the battle of Maiwand, midway on the road from Kandahar to Herat, on July 27, 1880. What began as a show of force, or “Flag March” in common parlance, led to an unintended and unanticipated “Meeting Engagement” between Ayub Khan, the warlord of Herat, and Brigadier George Burrow of the British South Afghanistan Field Force. While Ayub Khan had the advantage of intimate knowledge of the contours of the battlefield, Brigadier Burrow, a seasoned professional, had no option but to drop anchor, as it were, where he happened to be.
The combat elements of Burrow’s brigade, namely the 66th Regiment of Foot, the 1st Bombay Native Infantry (Grenadiers), the 30th Bombay Native Infantry (Jacob’s Rifles), the 3rd (Queen’s Own) Bombay Light Cavalry, 3rd Sind Horse and two Batteries of Royal Horse Artillery, all boasted of distinguished battlefield heritage. Taken together, they “made up a fighting strength of 1,800 bayonets, 550 sabres and 12 pieces of Artillery”. Here again, Ayub Khan had the upper hand with highly fired up “6,000 regular Infantry, cavalry element equivalent of six regular regiments and 36 Artillery guns”.
The mission expressly given to Burrow was: “... you have full liberty to attack Ayub, if you consider you are strong enough to do so... is of greatest political importance that his force should be dispersed and prevented by all possible means from passing on to Ghazni”; the latter part necessitated because Lt Gen Sir Fredrick Roberts, VC (later Commander in Chief, Indian Army), who had surrounded Kabul, was yet to bring its regime to surrender.
However, as in the game of chess, Ayub Khan had the advantage of the first mover and deftly manoeuvred his force for the kill, yet mindful of Burrow’s Artillery reach while creating a horseshoe formation around his beleaguered foe. Burrow was desperate for time for the Infantry to dig minimal trenches under the scorching heat, reconnoitre for a source of drinking water and attempt for Artillery ammunition replenishments.
As Ayub squeezed the horseshoe into a circle, Burrow was left with no option but to commence the battle by Artillery concentrations at 1130 hours and as may be imagined, Ayub countered with multiple intrusions from flanks and frontally and kept raising the tempo such that by 1330 hours, Burrow had exhausted all Artillery ammunition and on-person, drinking water. Despite every tactical stratagem of Burrow, by 1500 hours, the battle “was a physical impossibility. What with the fatigue of three hours’ march, added to over four hours’ march in the morning... exposure to heavy fire under a blazing sun... the men had stood fighting without food or water, it was utterly beyond human energy to run, mobbed as they were by hundreds of the enemy...”
And for the first and only time in the history of the British Army in India, a message was sent to GHQ, Simla, by Lt Gen Sir Donald Stewart from Kandahar: “Total defeat and dispersion of Brigadier Burrow’s force. Heavy loss in both officers and men.”
The figures were staggering; to Burrow’s 962 dead and 177 wounded, Ayub’s dead were 2,750 and 1,500 wounded. In addition, the camp followers (horse holders, grass cutters, bishtis, etc) by some counts were at least 1,500 dead and as many wounded. The logistical animal-train (camels, donkeys and ponies) fared no better.
Yet there were moments of great valour and extraordinary camaraderie as revealed by the severely wounded Surgeon-Major Preston of the 66th Regiment “...I had been lying on the ground for sometime... Captain Slade, Royal Artillery, at once determined to save my life... he abandoned the gun, and had me put on the limber... there was heavy firing from the village... it was at this stage that Gunner Collis won the Victoria Cross by running out towards the snipers to draw their fire on himself”. Incidentally, in time, Surgeon Preston would be none other than Sherlock Holmes’ Dr Watson!
And there is a tender episode from Maiwand connected with a young Afghan who on noticing “Afghan soldiers falter, used her veil as a standard and encouraged the men by shouting:
‘Young love if you do not fall in battle of Maiwand,
By God! Someone is saving you as a token of shame.’”
And the echo of that exhortation in the region of the lofty Hindu Kush mountains is not lost on the warlords to this day!
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