The year was 1880. The heat in the Afghan countryside was fierce. As
the troops formed up the approaching Afghan hordes spanned the horizon
– there were 25,000 Afghans and Ghazis while the small contingent of
three battalions, one British, H.M. 66th Regiment, and two Indian –
Jacob’s Rifles and Bombay Grenadiers took position and readied
themselves. With them was a half-company of the 2nd Company, Bombay
Sappers and Miners, led by Lt Thomas Rice Henn, R.E. They took their positions
in the centre with two guns of the Royal Horse Artillery.
The Second Afghan War had seen events going well for the British. They
had defeated Afghan tribesmen at Ali Masjid, Peiwar Kotal, Kabul, and
Ahmed Khel, and they had occupied numerous towns and villages,
including Kandahar and Jalalabad. Ayub Khan, the younger son of the
Emir of Afghanistan, Sher Ali, who had been holding Herat during the
British operations at Kabul and Kandahar, set out towards Kandahar
with a small army in June, and a brigade under Brigadier General
Burrows was detached from Kandahar to oppose him. Burrows advanced to
Helmand, opposite Gereshk, to oppose Ayub Khan, but was there deserted
by the Afghan troops of his ally, the wali of Kandahar, and forced to
retreat to Kushk-i-Nakhud, halfway to Kandahar. In order to prevent
Ayub from passing to Ghazni, Burrows advanced to Maiwand on July 27
and attacked Ayub, who had already seized that place.
The Afghan onslaught fell on the left flank comprising the Indian
infantry who gave way and rolled in a great wave to the right, the
66th Regiment, the backbone of defence, were swept away by the
pressure of the Ghazi attack. The 66th were in turn swept away and
decimated. Only the artillery and the Bombay Sappers under Lt Henn
stood fast, an island of calm in themaelstrom, covering the retreat of
the entire British Brigade. Seeing that they were covered by the
Bombay Sappers the British artillery fought till their their
ammunition was expended,and then abandoned their guns. Henn made his
men stand up and fire a volley at the crowd of Ghazis and Afghan
regulars pouring down upon them. Then he gave the order to retire
steadily. He had been wounded in the arm some time before this, but
remained with his men to the last.
Henn and 14 of his men followed the line of retreat of the 66th
towards the wall of the first garden across a large
nullah, and in a small water-channel in that garden, which was in a
place called Khig, they joined some remnants of the 66th and Bombay
Grenadiers. The battle churned on with the Afghans wiping out the
several small parties which had formed after the line had broken up
until only one remained, that of the 66th, the Grenadiers and Sappers
Here, in this small garden, at a spot undistinguished except for the
bravery shown there, a determined last stand was made. Though the
Afghans shot them down one by one, they fired steadily until only
eleven of their number were left, and the survivors then charged out
into the masses of the enemy and perished. Henn was the only officer
in that band and he led the final charge. He died while fighting,
firing a rifle all the while, from a shot to the head.
The Battle of Maiwand was one of the principal battles of the Second
Anglo-Afghan War. The Afghan followers of Ayub Khan defeated the
British Army in one of the rare nineteenth-century victories of an
Asian force over a Western power. For this however, Ayub Khan paid a
heavy price: between 2,050 and 2,750 Afghan warriors were killed and
probably about 1,500 wounded, while killing 969 British and Indian
soldiers and wounding 177 more. The British were completely routed,
and had to thank the pity and apathy of the Afghans for escaping total
annihilation. The 2nd Company, Bombay Sappers and Miners lost 16 dead,
including Henn, and 6 wounded.
As the survivors trickled in, of the Bombay Sappers Of the Bombay
Sappers who did not perish at Khig, a party of about a dozen men
reached Kandahar. One of this party added that, when a few men had
collected together, they decided that it was improper to straggle into
the city and accordingly fell in under the senior Sapper to make a
suitable entry and marched into Kandahar as a formed body. Others,
mostly wounded, arrived on camels, wagons or limbers. Thus, even in
defeat the discipline of the Corps held good.
While, the battle dampened morale for the British side, it was also
partly a disappointment for Ayub Khan, Governor of Herat and commander
of the Afghans in this battle, because he had lost so many men to gain
a small advantage. Ayub Khan did manage to shut the British up in
Kandahar, resulting in General Frederick Roberts’s famous 314-mile
relief march from Kabul to Kandahar in August of 1880. The resulting
Battle of Kandahar on September 1 was a decisive victory for the
British, ending operations in southern Afghanistan during the War.
A marble monument to Thomas Rice Henn can be seen in St. Patrick’s
Cathedral in Dublin and a memorial window in Rochester Cathedral. The
inscription on the monument records that “having led into action a
detachment of the Bombay Sappers and Miners he perished gloriously on
the fatal field of Maiwand on July 27th, 1880, covering with a small
but indomitable band-eleven in number-the retreat of the entire
Maiwand went into British military legend. Rudyard Kipling
wrote of the plight of the 66th :
“There was thirty dead an’ wounded on the ground we wouldn’t keep –
No, there wasn’t more than twenty when the front began to go;
But, Christ! along the line o’ flight they cut us up like sheep,
An’ that was all we gained by doing so.
I ‘eard the knives be’ind me, but I dursn’t face my man,
Nor I don’t know where I went to, ’cause I didn’t ‘alt to see,
Till I ‘eard a beggar squealin’ out for quarter as ‘e ran,
An’ I thought I knew the voice an’ – it was me!
We was ‘idin’ under bedsteads more than ‘arf a march away;
We was lyin’ up like rabbits all about the countryside;
An’ the major cursed ‘is Maker ’cause ‘e lived to see that day’
An’ the colonel broke ‘is sword acrost, an’ cried.”
When Arthur Conan Doyle had to find a suitable foil for his
idiosyncratic detective, he portrayed him as as a regimental medical
officer injured by a Ghazi jezail at Maiwand to give him an excuse for
his spare time and availability to Homes.
So as great stories go, Maiwand was added to Islandlwana and Dunkirk
and other military tales. Henn and his gallant Bombay Sappers are
little remembered today.
So why remember Maiwand?
To remember, in the face of certain death, Bombay Sappers stood true
and lived up to the highest ideals. They did not show fear, cowardice
but weathered the storm though they themselves perished. So it must be
in today’s scenario – when faced with ambiguous moral choices, we must
reject the improper ones, even at the cost of promotion or convenience
or material advancement.
For only, if we remember Maiwand and stand
true like Henn, in our professional lives, can we regain honour lost
at Adarsh Society, and a hundred other places in our lifetimes.