In 1879, the British invaded Afghanistan after the slaughter of their diplomatic mission in Kabul in October. They quickly occupied Kabul, Jalabad, Khost (eastern Afghanistan) and Kandahar (southern Afghanistan). They selected Abdur Rahman Khan as Amir, but in the cutthroat tribal politics of the Victorian era Great Game in Afghanistan, his cousin Ayab Khan rose in revolt.
Ayab Khan was the Governor of Herat (western Afghanistan) and marched on Kandahar, the key to southern Afghanistan, with an army of about 15,000. The British responded by sending an 8,500 strong army to intercept them that included British and Indian troop under British command and Afghan troops under Ayab Khan’s father Sher Ali (Abdur Rahman Khan’s uncle). As Ayab Khan approached, most of Sher Ali’s troops deserted to Ayab Khan and the two armies blundered into each other in the Maiwand Pass, the strategically important connection between the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. The British commander, Brigadier General George Burrows, though now heavily outnumbered, could not retreat because he would face accusations of cowardice, so he attacked.
The 2700 British, Indians and remaining Afghans were more disciplined, better trained, and with certain exceptions, namely artillery, better equipped but were still thoroughly thrashed by Ayab Khan. The attacks quickly turned into desperate defenses against overwhelming odds. The positions were exposed and the British army took a terrible pounding. Ayab Khan’s army was a mix of disciplined Herati and Kabuli regiments, extremely effective modern breech loading artillery, irregular cavalry, and thousands of tribal ghazis armed with swords, spears, and ancient jezails or Afghan muskets. The British were completely outmaneuvered, out fought, and despite their extremely effective Martini-Henry rifles, outgunned. By 1300, the British force was nearly out of ammunition, and their rifles overheated. They broke, and on the 50 mile retreat back to Kandahar, thousands were massacred.
The only bright spot in the battle for the British was the withdrawal of the 66th Regiment of Foot. The remaining 400 men withdrew in good order and covered the retreat for two hours, firing and withdrawing. Their disciplined formation soon caught the attention of the victorious Afghans, who stopped pursuing the routed individuals, and swarmed around the recalcitrant 66th. Around 3 pm, the remnants withdrew into the village of Khig.
According to one of Ayab Khan’s captains, about 200 survivors of the 66th withdrew into Khig. At their first stand in its walled gardens, the 66th inflicted hundreds of casualties, but lost 40 men. Of the 160 who fell back to the next walled garden, 84 died. 56 men made a third stand further back in the village. The final stand was made by just eleven men, calmly firing and reloading. Surrounded by thousands of Afghans, the final eleven “charged out of the garden, and died with their faces to the foe, fighting to the death… The conduct of those men was the admiration of all that witnessed it.”
The 66th’s last stand at Khig allowed hundreds to escape and reach Kandahar. Burrows lost over a thousand with another few hundred wounded who managed to stagger back into Kandahar. It seemed a repeat of the disastrous retreat from Kabul 40 years before.
Ayab Khan couldn’t translate his tactical victory into any advantage because it took him eight days to reorganize his army and march the 45 miles to Kandahar. By then, the British were prepared for a siege. A relief force would smash Ayab Khan’s army on 1 September. Nonetheless, the Battle of Maiwand was a shock to Victorian Great Britain, particularly coming so close on the heels of the loss against the Zulus at Isandlwana the year before. The Battle of Maiwand is the equivalent of the America’s Battle of the Little Big Horn.
The Battle of Maiwand was immortalized in the British consciousness most famously by Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose fictitious Dr Watson was wounded in the battle.