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The Battle of Maiwand was a battle during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The battle took place on 27 July 1880, in the Afghan town of Maiwand, close to the city of Kandahar. At that time, Kandahar was a major regional centre and its capture by Afghan rebels who were fighting a British force would have been a significant blow to British control in Afghanistan. The British forces were commanded by General George Burrows and the Afghans by Ayub Khan.

ridgeline
Ridgeline

The Battle of Maiwand was one of the largest battles of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Around 25,000 British and Indian troops faced an Afghan force of around 10,000. The battle was a disaster for the British, with around 2,800 troops killed or wounded. The Afghans also lost around 2,000 men.

The British had been planning to attack Kandahar from the south, but the Afghan rebels had occupied Maiwand, a key strategic town on the route to Kandahar. General Burrows decided to attack the Afghan position at Maiwand.

Battle of Maiwand

The Battle of Maiwand was fought on 27 July 1880 near the village of Maiwand in southern Afghanistan. This battle was one of the most decisive battles of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The Afghan forces were led by Mohammad Ayub Khan, Hafizullah, and Mullah Mustafa, while the British forces were led by Major General Burrows. The conflict takes its name from the nearby village of Maiwand, which is southwest of Kandahar city.

Four weeks after envoy Cavagnari was killed, a Highland Regiment had fought its way to the top of that ridgeline and the next day General Roberts had seized Kabul.

Abbie Aryan
Abbie Aryan

He came here to this citadel where he saw the blood-spattered walls and the mangled corpse of the envoy and his comrades. Enraged, General Roberts set up the gallows on the wall. He hanged 100 Afghans, demolished the palaces of the Afghan nobility and at that point, with honour satisfied, many suggested he should withdraw. But the Afghan king had been deposed, the country was unstable, Britain had taken responsibility for Afghanistan and leaving no longer seemed an option.

Maiwand Memorial to the Battle of Maiwand
Maiwand Memorial

While General Roberts sat in Kabul the countryside was now in revolt. Suddenly, a jihad had been called against them. And when they looked out on a winter evening from their small camp in Kabul. They could see right along this ridgeline, 60,000 watchfires burning from Afghans bent on their destruction.

History Repeating

It must have seemed as though history was repeating itself exactly. And the one lesson that Britain should be taking away was never to invade Afghanistan.

This time, unlike his predecessor, General Roberts decided to stay and fight. And he was able, just, to withstand the siege of his compound in Kabul.

But in Helmand province, the Afghans completely defeated and wiped out another British unit, this time in the Battle of Maiwand. It’s one of Afghanistan’s most famous victories and I met Abbie Aryan, an Afghan living in London, at this British Memorial to the Battle of Maiwand. History has it that the Afghans won because of the rousing battle cry of a young woman called Malalai.

Under Siege at the Battle of Maiwand
Under Siege

Abbie Aryan “She’s an ordinary Afghan girl. As she’s standing in the battle, she can see that the Afghans are losing. And she stood there, took her veil off and said, ‘If you love your country and if you’re a real Pashtun, and if you don’t want to be ashamed, you have to go and fight the British.’ Remember when Elizabeth stood in front of the Spanish Armada… Gave this speech to the British Army? To us, that was equivalent to that.”

And by revealing her face, actually, in some ways, it’s a kind of shame for her and her family, everybody sees her face. But she’s going to die so it doesn’t matter?

Abbie Aryan “Absolutely. And she, in fact, she dies in the battle as well, but the encouragement she gave to the Afghans there was immense.”

Modern Helmand

Unlike the massacre of the British Army in the retreat from Kabul. Maiwand was not covered in a serialisation in The Times. So although a thousand British soldiers were killed, this memorial in Reading is almost all that remains. And its meaning is now largely forgotten. But ask an Afghan and you get a very different response. This battle, like the retreat from Kabul, is still the stuff of legend.

Abbie Aryan “As an Afghan child, as you learn how to walk, you know about the battles we had with the British. It is part of our DNA. It’s part of our life. The Battle of Maiwand is like a legend in Afghanistan. I think, anyway, the British try to justify it, saying, ‘Oh it was really sunny hot day. We didn’t have as much as… Afghans had superior firepower.’ How can the Afghan army have superior firepower than the British?”

Local Afghans often warn British troops fighting in Helmand today that they will meet the same fate as befell their predecessors in Helmand at Maiwand.

Abbie Aryan “We say that all doors are always open for invaders. Look from Alexander the Great, all the way to the British and today. It’s really easy to get into Afghanistan. It’s just the getting-out part that’s very difficult. We always don’t mind the foreign invaders getting in there, relaxing and feeling comfortable, then we start our fight. This is our traditional way of doing things.”

What you think an Afghan villager feels they are fighting for?

Celebrated Marches

Abbie Aryan “For their home and country. For their independence. They don’t like a foreign invading army to come through their villages. To do it with your mighty force and say, ‘Look, I’m here, I’m going to provide you peace and security.’ This is a joke, honestly is, because nobody believes that. Afghans wouldn’t accept that – as how can somebody bring peace with a gun and weapons? You can’t do that.”

General Roberts Statue
General Roberts Statue

A thousand British soldiers had been massacred at the Battle of Maiwand. The war was coming against Britain, but the response this time was immediate. There followed one of the most celebrated marches of the entire Victorian era. General Roberts, with an elite band of Gurkhas and Highlanders, set off from Kabul through unknown territory with no support. 320 miles, in 20 days, in hundred-degree heat, arrived safely at Kandahar, and won a decisive victory that brought the second Anglo-Afghan war to a close.

Having won a victory, the question was, what would Britain do next? All the fears, all the pride that had dragged them into Afghanistan was still there. They’d spent blood and treasure. There were so many reasons to try to continue occupation and yet they decided to declare a victory and get out.

And this is because, despite all these fears, the British Empire had a lot of people who knew the region well, who spoke the languages well, who understood their limits, who understood that it couldn’t be done. And nobody summed it up better than Gen Roberts himself.

He said, “We have nothing to fear from Afghanistan and, offensive though it may be to our pride, the less they see of us, the less they will dislike us.”

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