Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

100 Years Ago: The Third Anglo-Afghan War Breaks Out

Fort Robat and the Kabul River, Afghanistan

By Edward Proctor, Duke University Libraries

The Third Anglo-Afghan War was one of Britain’s briefest, lasting just over three months during the summer of 1919, from 6 May to 8 August. It was surprisingly poorly reported, with fewer than a dozen articles appearing in the Times of London, several consisting of editorials and letters to the editor, and all of them buried in the back pages—even the announcement of the commencement of hostilities, “British Enter Afghanistan. Strategic Point Seized,” appeared as a small item consisting of just two brief paragraphs on page 12.  As a contemporary magazine put it, “So little has appeared in the newspapers about the Third Afghan War that probably most respectable citizens do not know there has been one.” 

Unlike the two previous Anglo-Afghan Wars (the first of which lasted the better part of three years, from 1839 to 1842, and the second for two years, from 1878 to 1880), this conflict began as the result of Afghan incursions into British-occupied territory across the border with India, rather than the other way round (as was historically more usual). According to the New Statesman for 16 August 1919:

The reasons that led the new Ameer [Amanullah Khan, the King] of Afghanistan to begin war on India are obscure, and the version of his motives given by the Indian Government make him out to be little better than a fool. One feels that there must be another and more reasonable side to the whole business.
The Times speculated that:

Some of the causes of the Afghan troubles are still obscure, but there is reason to suspect that Russian intrigue has had something to do with them. A friendly Russia which recognizes her duty to the rest of the world would have no motive to stir up trouble of this kind. But a Russia with its hand against everyone, like the present Bolshevist Government of Russia, can create endless mischief.

A British Tommy Stands Guard Over the Battleground of 11 May 1919

British interest in Afghanistan was long-standing, since it was viewed as a buffer between Russia and their Indian Empire. It was feared that Russia might attack India in order to gain access to a warm-water port. This rivalry, known as “The Great Game,” ran from most of the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century.

It was also theorized that the Amir felt that the time was ripe for fomenting unrest in India following the massacre by British forces of hundreds of unarmed civilians in the city of Amritsar the month before; but this explanation, like that of Bolshevik intrigue, is currently discredited. It is now believed that he was attempting to assert his country’s independence, both as an end in itself and due to domestic political considerations which compelled him to demonstrate his strength to opposition forces in Kabul. Previously, Britain controlled all aspects of Afghanistan’s foreign policy, and paid the Amir a subsidy of £120,000 [more than $4,000,000 in today’s currency] for the privilege. 

Over 10,000 British-Indian troops were mobilized. Casualties on both sides were heavy: 1,751 killed or wounded (including over 500 deaths from cholera) on the British side, and an estimated 1,000 deaths among the Afghans. British tactics included what was colloquially referred to as “butcher and bolt” operations, in which villages would be destroyed, their inhabitants killed, and troops would immediately return to their base, making no attempt to occupy any territory. Kabul and the Afghan fort at Dakka were successfully bombed using the relatively-new technology of biplanes, resulting in the following editorial comment in the Times: “[T]his is the first proof that we have had of the immense military value of the aeroplanes in small wars with semi-civilized peoples.” 

The war was ended by the Treaty of Rawalpindi, with both sides claiming a measure of victory—the Afghans successfully asserting their right to conduct their own foreign affairs (one of the first acts of which was to recognize the new Bolshevik government in Russia), and the British re-establishing the ante-bellum border and discontinuing their subsidy to the Amir.   

Kurram Valley Militia Post

Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier Province of India occupied a disproportionately large place in the psychology of British imperialism, largely because these areas were never successfully colonized or "pacified" by military force. Numerous stories of conflict in these regions, ranging from books and magazine articles, such as the more-or-less factual drawings and text in the Illustrated London News, to highly romanticized novels and heroic tales of daring-do in schoolboy magazines such as the Boy’s Own Paper were extremely popular, as were the works of Rudyard Kipling, unofficial poet laureate of the British Empire, who captured and shaped popular attitudes with his frequently jingoistic short stories, novels, and verse:

“The Young British Soldier”

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

The first line of “The Ballad of East and West” is often quoted out of context:

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

 “Arithmetic on the Frontier”

A scrimmage in a Border Station-
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail [handmade long barrel rifle].
The Crammer's boast, the Squadron's pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!

Sources: Website and Randolph Bezzant Holmes Photograph Collection, 1910–1919, Duke University Libraries


  1. The 3rd Afghan War casualties are listed on the India Gate in Delhi, which was constructed as India's WW1 memorial but is now also the site of India's Unknown Soldier burials as well.

  2. Fascinating account of a little-known conflict. I remember getting the Boy's Own Paper as a schoolboy--long after the 3rd Afghan War.