Friday, 24 August 2012

Charasiab 1879

In 1940, 93 year old Robert Whiting gave an interview to The West Australian newspaper. A former member of the 3rd (East Kent) Regiment he had enlisted in 1870 and swiftly been deployed to Calcutta in India (probably somewhat different to his native Maidstone). A few years later he had found himself in the steamy Malay jungle in the Perak War. That ended successfully, but his travails were not over yet.

Battles Long Ago. A Veteran's Memories, The West Australian, 26 Jan 1940

He served throughout the Afghanistan War, and in 1879 was a member of the redoubtable "Field Force" which, after the victory at Charasla, surged onward and upward in the historic march to Kabul, to avenge the Residency massacre and prepare for the final advance on Kandahar and the routing of the Afghan armies. The outstanding figures of this campaign were Major Sir George White, of Ladysmith renown, and General Sir Frederick Roberts. Private Whiting still speaks of "Bobs" in tones of unashamed hero-worship.

The 2nd Afghan War (of four and counting)

The 2nd Afghan War arose out of the Great Game between Britain and Russia. Afghanistan was viewed as a vital buffer between British India and an ever-expanding Russia, so when the Tsar sent a diplomatic mission to Kabul in 1878 the British demanded at least the same. Sher Ali Khan, the Amir, not only refused but said he would turn back any mission sent. The response was 40,000 British and Indian troops who occupied most of the country and imposed the Treaty of Gandarmack, under which all foreign affairs came under British control. Satisfied, most of the British army withdrew.
In September 1879 an uprising in Kabul slaughtered the British Resident and all his staff.

The only British force left in Afghanistan, the Kurrum Valley Field Force was ordered to march on Kabul and avenge the massacre. Fortunately for them they were commanded by Major General Sir Frederick Roberts. Once reinforced he renamed his force the Kabul Field Force, and set off over the Shutargardan Pass into central Afghanistan.
An elephant portered battery in Afghanistan

Lord Robert's official report in the London Gazette is available online at

Briefly this is the story.
Roberts was well aware that as soon as he left his camp at Ali Kheyl the Afghans would mobilise, and so speed was of the essence, especially as he would have to stop every other day to let his supply train and it's elephants catch up. He left Ali Kheyl in September and by the afternoon of the 5th of October had reached the the village of Charasiab, eleven miles from Kabul. The only problems up till then had been at the bridge over the Logar river, where repairs had been necessary to make it fit to take field artillery, and hostile locals had made it "necessary for the covering companies of the 72nd Highlanders and the 5th Punjab Infantry to drive them back at the point of the bayonet."

Punjabi Infantry (the 23rd)

Roberts considered the situation. " It was evident to me, from the feeling and manner of the people generally, from the fact that the Shuturgurdan had been attacked immediately on the bulk of our force leaving it, and from the action of the villages near Zahidabad, that our advance on Kabul would be opposed." The one major obstacle was the mountain range between Charasiab and Kabul, broken by passes at several places, but easily defensible. "Behind these heights lay the densely crowded city of Kabul, with the scarcely less crowded suburbs of Chardeh, Deh-i-affghan, &c., and the numerous villages which lie thickly clustered all over the Kabul Valley. Each and all of these had contributed their quota of men to assist the troops collected to fight us, and it did not require much experience of Afghans to know that the numbers already opposed to us would be very considerably increased if the enemy were allowed to remain in possession of their stronghold for a single night."

The Forces

The 5th Gurkha Rifles in Afghanistan

Roberts had at his disposal the following;

The 8th (Kings) (2nd battalion) and 67th (South Hampshire) Foot, the 72nd (Seaforth) and 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders
5th Gurkha Rifles, 5th, 21st, 29th Punjabi Infantry, 56th and 58th (Vaughn's) Punjabi Rifles, 23rd Sikh Pioneers
9th Lancers and 10th Hussars (1 squadron)
5th, 12th, 14th and 25th Punjab Cavalry
A Royal Artillery detachment (20 field guns)
2nd Mountain battery

It should be said first that there is no mention anywhere of the Buffs being involved in the 2nd Afghan War, or the Kabul Field Force at Charasiab, but that doesn't mean Bob Whiting wasn't there of course. He might have been on attachment, or just swept up in the desperate draft of troops after the Residency massacre. 

It was later believed that opposing them were 13 regular regiments with contingents  from Kabul and neighbouring villages, to several thousand men  commanded by Sirdar Nek Mahomed Khan, son of the late Amir Dost Mahomed Khan. Twenty guns were captured, many of which, Roberts makes a point of mentioning, had been originally supplied by the British.

The Battle of Charasiab

 Afghan troops

Cavalry patrols were sent out along the three possible roads from Charasiab to Kabul. Roberts chose the road to " Ben-i-Shahr," but that required seizing the crest of the pass at " Sang-i-Nawishta," so at dawn the next day the force set off. The enemy had other ideas, and "troops could be seen in large numbers and regular formation crowning the crest line of the hills, which extended from the narrow defile of the "Sang-i-Nawishta" (both sides of which were held) on their extreme left, to the heights above the Chardeh Valley, which formed their right. From the way they moved it was clear that many of these at least were regular Afghan Army units."

Roberts had already sent the 23rd Pioneers ahead to prepare the road through the pass for heavy artillery, protected by a "wing" of the 92nd Highlanders, and two guns from No. 2 Mountain battery. These he reinforced with the 72nd Highlanders, 6 companies of the 5th Gurkhas, 200 men of the 5th Punjabi Infantry, more sappers, and also 4 more mountains guns and 2 Gatling guns. The whole was placed under the command Brigadier-General Baker, and given the difficult task of clearing the pass. The rest of the 5th Punjabi was sent up to protect Baker´s ammunition stores and field hospital.

"After leaving Charasiab, General Baker advanced over some bare undulating hills, forming a series of positions easily defensible, and flanked by steep rocky crags varying in height from 1,000 to 1,800 feet above the sloping plane which our troops had to cross. The main position of the enemy was at least 400 feet higher. It commanded their entire front, and was only accessible in a few places."

Highlanders (this time the 92nd) in the 2nd Afghan War

Baker was to move forward to artillery range and bombard the enemy, but wait for an outflanking attack by the 72nd Highlanders before launching his main attack, This he did, only to find that both attacks bogged down in the terrible terrain, so he had to reinforce the flank with two companies of the 5th Gurkhas and the centre with two more companies of Gurkhas and the 5th Punjabis. The fighting was very hard, with heavy casualties amongst the 72nd, but they prevailed. The enemy retreated about 6oo yards to another position, but the British advanced in rushes, covered by the mountain guns, and after 30 minutes this too fell. By 3-45 the high ridge was in British hands and they turned the whole Afghan position. The road to Kabul was open.

The war was not yet over, Kabul was besieged in December 1879, and a revolt in Herat lead to the British defeat at Maiwand in July 1880, but after a crushing British victory under Roberts at the Battle of Kandahar in September Afghanistan became, more or less, peaceful.


 "There aren't so many of them left now, though," he says ruefully,  "How is it that I still linger on, when so many have gone? I sometimes ask myself." A recipe for long life? "Well, a contented mind perhaps that, and doing nothing to make It discontented, if possible. Moderation, too, but by no means abstention. I enjoy my pipe as much as ever, and also my beer. As long as you can still enjoy things, there's nothing much wrong with life. In India we could always get good English beer for 2d. a pint (at home it was only 1d.), and tobacco for 1/ a Ib."
"Methods of warfare have altered out of all knowledge since I was in the army, of course. Tactics have changed, equipment has changed, weapons are altogether different. When we were fighting the Afghans, nobody even dreamt of submarines, or fast-flying bombers, or poison gas, or long-range guns."
When the talk is over and farewells have been said, Bob Whiting, Private of the Buffs, draws himself up to his full height, clicks his heels, and gravely salutes.

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