Out of the frying pan, into the historical fire. If only our leaders read history. In 1915, the British swept up from Basra, believing that the Iraqis would reward them with flowers and love, only to find themselves surrounded at Kut al-Amara, cut down by Turkish shellfire and cholera. Now we are reinforcing Nato in that tomb of the British Army, Afghanistan.
Hands up any soldiers who know that another of Britain’s great military defeats took place in the very sands in which your colleagues are now fighting the Taliban. Yes, the Battle of Maiwand – on 27 July, 1880 – destroyed an entire British brigade, overrun by thousands of armed Afghan tribesmen, some of whom the official enquiry into the disaster would later describe as “Talibs”. The Brits had been trying to secure Helmand province. Sound familiar?
Several times already in Helmand, the British have almost been overwhelmed. This has not been officially admitted, but the Ministry of Defence did make a devious allusion to this last year – it was missed by all the defence correspondents – when it announced that British troops in Helmand had been involved in the heaviest combat fighting “since the Korean War”. The Afghans talk of one British unit which last year had to call in air strikes, destroying almost the entire village in which they were holding out. Otherwise, they would have been overrun.
General Burrows had no close air support on 27 July, 1880, when he found himself confronting up to 15,000 Afghan fighters at Maiwand, but he had large numbers of Egyptian troops with him and a British force in the city of Kandahar. Already, the British had cruelly suppressed a dissident Afghan army – again, sound familiar? – after the British residency had been sacked and its occupants murdered. Britain’s reaction at the time was somewhat different from that followed today. Britain’s army was run from imperial India where Lord Lytton, the Viceroy, urged his man in Kabul – General Roberts, later Lord Roberts of Kandahar – to crush the uprising with the utmost brutality. “Every Afghan brought to death, I shall regard as one scoundrel the less in a nest of scoundrelism.” Roberts embarked on a reign of terror in Kabul, hanging almost a hundred Afghans.
The commander of the rebellious Afghans was Ayub Khan, whose brother was forced to abdicate as king after the Kabul uprising. When Ayub Khan re-emerged from the deserts of the west – he marched down from that old warlord territory of Herat towards Kandahar – the luckless General Burrows was sent to confront him. Almost a thousand British and Indian troops were to be slaughtered in the coming hours as Ayub Khan’s army fired shells from at least 30 artillery pieces and then charged at them across the fields and dried-up river at Maiwand.
The official British inquiry – it was covered in red cloth and ran to 734 pages – contains many photographs of the landscape over which the battle was fought. The hills and distant mountains, of course, are identical to those that are now videotaped by “embedded” reporters in the British Army.
Outgunned and outmanoeuvred, the British found themselves facing a ruthless enemy. Colonel Mainwaring of the 30th Bombay Infantry wrote a chilling report for the authorities in Delhi. “The whole of the ground… was covered with swarms of ‘ghazis’ and banner-men. The ‘ghazis’ were actually in the ranks of the Grenadiers, pulling the men out and hacking them down with their swords.”The wreckage of the British Army retreated all the way to Kandahar where they were besieged, until rescued by General Roberts himself, whose famous march of 10,000 troops from Kandahar – a distance of 300 miles covered in just 20 days – is now military legend.
History, it seems, haunts all our adventures in the Middle East. Who would have believed that after the British reached Baghdad in a 1917 invasion, they would face an insurgency which, in speed and ruthlessness, was an almost exact predecessor to the rebellion which the British and Americans would confront from 2003? Lloyd George, then Prime Minister, stood up in the House of Commons to insist that the British occupation force had to stay in Iraq. Otherwise, he warned, the country would be plunged into civil war. Sound familiar?
One of the greatest defeats of British forces anywhere in the world had occurred more than four decades before Maiwand, on the Kabul Gorge in 1842, when an entire British army was wiped out by Afghan fighters in the snow. The sole survivor, the famous Doctor Brydon, managed to out-horse two armed Afghans and ride into the British compound in Jalalabad.
So now the British are to reinforce Afghanistan yet again. Flying by Chinook to Kandahar will not take as long as General Roberts’s 20 days. British soldiers are unlikely even to enter Kandahar’s central square. But if they do, they might care to look at the few ancient cannon on the main roundabout: all that is left of General Roberts’s artillery.