|27 July 1880. A date Mr Blair should look up
Those sending British troops to Afghanistan should learn the
lessons of the Battle of Maiwand
By Robert Fisk
Independent" -- - 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
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.
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