British soldiers during the 1919 Third Afghan War in a skirmish near Kobat
Feature

‘Meaningless, Crazy And Unnecessary’ – The ‘Forgotten’ Third Afghan War

Overshadowed by WW1, the 100-year-old Third Afghan War has surprisingly modern resonance, as British Army officer Paul Macro explains.

British soldiers during the 1919 Third Afghan War in a skirmish near Kobat

When UK forces joined their American allies going to war in Afghanistan in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 attacks, they certainly weren’t doing so for the first time.

In fact, Britain had gone to war with Afghanistan not once, not twice, but on three prior occasions. 

The third of these wars started not because Britain had gone into Afghanistan but because the Afghans struck out and invaded British territory: her empire in India.

Appropriately enough, the centenary of the end of that conflict falls just as the US is engaging in peace talks with the Taliban meant to bring the most recent Afghan war to a close.

Now, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Macro tells the story of the generally-less-well-known Third Afghan War. His recent book on the war, ‘Action at Badama Post’, can be picked up here 

Article by Paul Macro

The British have a long history of conflict in Afghanistan, having shared a border with the country along the North-West Frontier of India (now Pakistan) for many years.

This history ranges from the First Afghan War (1839-1842), through the Second (1878-1880), and Third (1919), right up to the current campaign against the Taliban. 

The Third Afghan War is probably the least well known of these conflicts. It was famously described by a diplomat of the period, Sir Hamilton Grant, as:

“ … the most meaningless, crazy and unnecessary war in history.”

Yet, of all these Anglo-Afghan conflicts, the Third War probably deserves to be remembered more than it is because it was the only occasion on which Afghan regular forces invaded British India. 

And, quite apart from having possibly been ‘meaningless’, ‘crazy’ and ‘unnecessary’, it was also a vicious little campaign. It cost the lives of over 1,000 British and Indian troops, and, like the ISIS horror stories of today, those who fell into enemy hands usually experienced torture, mutilation and death.

Even so, British personnel who served on the North-West Frontier of India would probably not have claimed that it was in any way as unpleasant as serving in the trenches of the Western Front.

In fact, a big part of the reason more people aren’t more familiar with the conflict is precisely because of its close proximity, timewise, to the First World War. For us, the centenary of the 1918 Armistice has largely overshadowed the subsequent one for the Third Afghan War. (It ended on August 8, 1919).

Footage of the Queen visiting the Khyber Pass in 1961 that gives a good sense of the terrain

The brevity of the campaign, and its relatively small casualty list (total casualties equated to an average weeks’ worth on the Western Front) also haven’t helped. Nor has the fact that a small number of actual British troops were involved. 75 percent of the ‘British’ forces who were there were Indian.

This is despite the fact that, as the aftermath of World War 1 - the Bolshevik Revolution, the Paris Peace Conference and political and economic reconstruction – continued to play out in Europe, a tragic and outrageous incident occurred in British India.

In April 1919, British troops under the command of Acting Brigadier General Reginald Dyer fired into a crowd that had gathered within a walled public garden. The resultant bloodbath became known as the Amritsar massacre, an incident that killed several hundred (or possibly over a thousand) and injured multitudes more. 

Yet in May 1919, Indian troops would still be fighting on the side of the British during the Third Afghan War.

Trailer for the 1982 epic ‘Ghandi’, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley, which features several clips of a scene depicting the Amritsar massacre, initiated by Acting Brigadier General Dyer, who is played by Edward Fox

Naturally, the very use of Indian troops simply came down to geography. 

While the war was adjacent to World War 1 in the calendar, it was far removed from its epicentre – the Western Front – geographically. 

Thus, the 5,000-mile distance from the UK meant a considerable delay in communications. Short messages could be sent by telegraph, but detailed dispatches had to go by ship and had a transit time of around one month in each direction. 

The war, when it started, was therefore not just an unwelcome surprise to the British administration in India, but a complete shock to the government back in Britain.

Part of the surprise factor may have been the short duration. The main fighting took place over the course of a month and, within ten days of initiating the invasion, Amanullah, the Amir (‘High King’) of Afghanistan, was making peace overtures to Delhi. 

So, for the government in London, it was largely over by the time they were just getting to grips with it having started.

The ceasefire was agreed on June 3, 1919, exactly a month after the Afghans had invaded, although skirmishing, particularly on the Kurram frontier, continued for another week. 

And, while the situation remained very tense with the Afghan tribes - the traditional source of trouble on the North-West Frontier - the formal Armistice was signed on August 8, 1919 (officially ending the war then, as noted.)

British soldiers on a trooping train within India during Third Afghan War
British soldiers on a trooping train in India during the Afghan War (image used with permission of Alex Bowell, from Cpl W Patrick’s album)

What, then, prompted the Afghans to start the war in the first place?

For the government in Afghanistan, the war was in large part an exercise in political diversion. 

In February 1919, Habibullah, the Amir of Afghanistan, was assassinated. 

This triggered a power struggle when Habibullah's brother, Nasrullah Khan, proclaimed himself the natural successor. That’s because Habibullah's third son, Amanullah, also claimed the throne and had his uncle arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Habibullah. 

But Nasrullah had been the leader of a more conservative element of society and his treatment rendered Amanullah's position tenuous.  

Taking advantage of the rising civil following the massacre in Amritsar, Amanullah attacked in hopes of uniting his own fractious government behind him.

The BBC on the Amritsar massacre 100 years on

Once the conflict had started, it ended up having much in common with wars that had taken place there before and since. That’s because, in any Afghan war, as well as the principal antagonists, there is also - and has always been - a third force in the background: the terrain. Tough and imposing, it largely dictates the nature of any conflict in and around the country. 

The central feature, the mountains of the Hindu Kush, run diagonally across it, effectively dividing the board of ‘the great game’ into three neat theatres – the very north, the east and the south-west.

The Khyber Pass lies in the northeast and is the main route into Kabul from India, via Peshawar (in today’s Pakistan.) 

It’s also a route out of the country and was the one the Afghans took when they triggered the war on May 3, 1919, when they crossed the frontier and captured the town of Bagh – now in Pakistan, then part of British India.

The town was strategically important to the British and Indians as it provided water to Landi Kotal (kotal itself means ‘pass’), the site of a fort that stood at the western-most point of British control along the Khyber.

But for the time being, the British only considered this to be a minor border infraction.

In reality, Amanullah intended for it to coincide with an uprising that was being planned in Peshawar later in May. 

Afganistan Map with the Khyber Pass shown under the label
Afghanistan with Pakistan visible to its east – at the time Pakistan was part of British India; the Khyber Pass is marked in red (image: Google)
Map showing the region of the Third Afghan War
Map showing the area of conflict in its regional context – note that Persia is part of what is now Iran (map from ‘Action at Badama Post’ by Paul Macro © Casemate Publishers)

The British reacted swiftly. 

A battalion of infantry was lifted on lorries up the Khyber to block the invasion. 

At the same time, Peshawar was closed off and the ringleaders of the planned uprising were arrested. 

Further reinforcements were rushed into the Khyber and, after an initial unsuccessful attempt on 9 May, the Afghans were driven back over the border on 11 May. 

As well as the ground troops, the British also supported their ground operations with planes from the RAF’s 31 Squadron, used to harry the Afghan forces from the air. 

On 13 May, the British advanced into Afghanistan as far as Loe Dakka, where they were counter-attacked by Afghan forces, but these were beaten off. 

The British then held at Dakka, considering their options for advancing further into Afghanistan, to Jalalabad, or Kabul itself. 

Events, however, would put a stop to these best-laid plans, for the war was about to heat up elsewhere.

Map of the North West Frontier during the Third Afghan War
Map of the Khyber Pass Theatre of Operations during the Third Afghan War
Loe Dakka, or ‘Dakka’, seen just above the square in the middle of the top map, then just to the left of the Durand Line, the border, in the next map (maps from ‘Action at Badama Post’ by Paul Macro © Casemate Publishers)

The central theatre of the conflict would instead be further south in the Kurram Valley that ran through Waziristan (see map below), in what is now central Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan.

This was the tribal homeland of the Wazir and Mashud tribes, the most independent of all the tribes on the frontier. 

To the north of Thal, the Kurram River rose in the mountain passes which eventually provided an alternative route to Kabul, avoiding the Khyber.  

Parachinar was the administrative centre for the Upper Kurram, and housed the headquarters of the Kurram Militia. 

Facing the British-Indian forces in the Kurram was the most compact and formidable of the Afghan forces. The main base was at Ghazni, but the force had been moved forward to Matun. 

Its commander was the young (36-year-old), energetic and aggressive Nadir Khan, former Commander-in-Chief of the Afghan Army. He would go on to become Amir of Afghanistan from 1929, through to his assassination in 1933. 

Khan would have anticipated considerable support from many of the tribes of the North-West Frontier. However, on 6 May 1919, the only sign of enemy activity on the Central Front was the building of sangars (military breastworks) at Peiwar Kotal, and it appeared that the Afghan agents had had little success in their efforts to incite the tribes of the Wazirs and the Mahsuds.

In early May 1919, the point of the central theatre most threatened was Parachinar, isolated from Thal up the Kurram Valley.  

Reacting to initial reports of Nadir Khan’s concentration at Matun, the Kurram Militia, part of the British-Indian force, pushed forward picquets (advanced guards) to the border in the vicinity of Peiwar Kotal, Kharlarchi and Lakka Tiga. There, they observed Afghan movements and tried to identify the direction of Nadir Khan’s main attack. 

Map of the Central Theatre of the Third Afghan War
The central theatre of the conflict (maps from ‘Action at Badama Post’ by Paul Macro © Casemate Publishers)
NWFP_FATA Pakistan boarding Afghanistan by Pahari Sahib with Wiziristan circled
Map of the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas, 1947 to 2018) and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP – merged with the former in 2018), later Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with Waziristan in the bottom corner (image: Pahari Sahib)

Khan moved on May 23, heading south-east, down the Kaitu, threatening both Bannu and Thal. 

In the face of this threat, the Waziristan Militia evacuated the Spinwam border post the next day, as well as other garrisons along the Upper Tochi River in North Waziristan.  

Then a number of the militia deserted the British while the Wazirs rose up and joined the Afghans.

Nadir Kahn occupied Spinwam on May 25 with a force of 3,000 Afghan infantry, field howitzers and pack guns, and a large force of tribesmen from Khost and Waziristan. 

He was now equidistant from Thal and Bannu.  

The British reinforced Thal from Kohat, diverting forces which might otherwise have been used to continue the invasion of Afghanistan through the Khyber.

On the morning of May 27, Nadir Khan then appeared to the north-west of Thal, invested it and opened fire with his artillery, cutting off the forces in Parachinar and the Upper Kurram. 

The British had prepared for such an eventuality by improving the defence lines. However, the water supply was a potential weakness. 

Despite being bombed by the RAF, Khan's artillery outranged that of the British and was causing considerable damage, and he started to push the defences in towards the water supply.  

At the same time, the skirmishes on the frontiers increased in intensity, particularly around Peiwar Kotal, Kharlarchi and Lakka Tiga. 

British Soldiers in action at Kohat during the Third Anglo-Afghan War
Soldiers in action at Kohat (image: Sergeant EW Macro’s album)

Meanwhile, at Kohat, Brigadier General Dyer (the same man who’d ordered the aforementioned massacre in India) assembled a column of infantry, guns, machine guns and a few lorries for the relief of Thal.  

Dyer marched with his men on May 31 and successfully relieved Thal the following day (lorries aside, most men went on foot.) 

In early June, he drove Khan back into Afghanistan. 

Gregory Fremont-Barnes quotes Dyer’s biographer in his book ‘The Anglo-Afghan Wars’, giving a glimpse into what the fighting conditions must have been like. In many ways, they were much the same as they are today:

“At Togh, the General addressed his troops, exhorting them to make a great effort to rescue their comrades at Thal. His words touched the hearts of that strangely assorted force of veterans and war levies, Punjabi peasants and London men of business so that they marched to the last of their strength, some of them dropped in their tracks. At four o’clock in the morning on 31 May they set out along a fairly open valley between steep hills. There was no wind and but little water, and as the day advanced the stony hillsides became a furnace, the naked rocks throwing back the sun so that it seemed to strike from the ground as from the sky.”

‘The attack on the Peiwar Kotal, Afghanistan, by 5th Gurkha Rifles, December 1878’, which took place during the Second Afghan War and gives a sense of the terrain around the Peiwar pass
‘The attack on the Peiwar Kotal, Afghanistan, by 5th Gurkha Rifles, December 1878’, which took place during the Second Afghan War and gives a sense of the terrain around the Peiwar pass (image: National Army Museum, London 1011652)

The third theatre was the southern one of Baluchistan and the Zhob, the latter being a city (and later subdivision) in the Baluchistan region of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan. 

The action here centred on the town of Quetta, which lies just west of the Bolan Pass and from which the passes through Khojac and Chaman to Spin Baldak provide the second major route into Afghanistan, on to the city of Kandahar. 

Here, a daring and successful raid by the British to capture the fort at Spin Baldak, on May 27, 1919, greatly reduced the chances of an Afghan invasion by this route. 

This was the last occasion on which British forces captured a fortress by escalade. Over 200 of the 500-strong garrison of Afghan regulars were killed in the action. The British lost 18 killed and 40 wounded. 

The ceasefire was announced shortly after, in early June, but it was tense and various clashes and skirmishes took place as discontent bubbled up amongst the tribes, particularly in Waziristan, the Kurram and the Zhob.

Map of the Region of southern theatre of third Anglo-Afghan War
The portion of Baluchistan discussed here – Quetta, Chaman, Spin Baldak and Kandahar are all visible, while Baldak (not seen on the map) lies adjacent to Chaman, and Zhob lies beyond the boundary of the map to the north east (image: Google)

The outcome of the war remains contentious. 

The British claimed victory on the grounds of having repulsed the Afghan invasion, restored the integrity of British India and subjected Kabul and Jalalabad to aerial bombing. 

But the situation with the tribes remained tense and trouble continued, particularly in Waziristan, for several years. 

For his part, Nadir Khan continued to incite the tribesmen and failed to withdraw from the border as required by the ceasefire. Because of his attack into Waziristan and the siege of Thal, he was hailed as a victor in Kabul. In due course, a statue was erected in his honour. 

And the armistice was certainly a diplomatic victory for the Afghans. Britain recognised Afghanistan as an independent nation and gave the Afghans control of their own foreign policy. 

As the Times stated on October 30, 1919:

“ … the Government of India muddled the campaign and muddled the peace.”

This is why the war was ‘pointless’, at least from the British point of view. While the Afghans gained more autonomy, the British had fought to re-establish the borders of the Punjab (the region of northern British-India adjacent to Afghanistan.) And they did so without achieving abatement in their troubles there. 

As Fremont-Barnes explains:

“The conclusion of the Third Afghan War did not end troubles for British authorities in India, for the fighting had caused unrest that could not be immediately quelled, especially in Waziristan, where the trouble (of rebellious tribespeople) deepened.”

Unfortunately for the British authorities, this wasn’t to be a short-lived problem either:

“The disbandment or break-up of militia units in the North-West Frontier was naturally seen by local tribesmen as an opportunity to foment trouble. The Mahsuds and Wazirs, though traditional rivals, found a common purpose in exploiting British weakness and uniting against them, making use of weapons and ammunition looted or brought to the field by deserters from the militia, who possessed a degree of military experience and training useful to the rebels. Thus began years of opposition to British authority (in what was then northern India), opposition that was to continue well into the 1930s.”

British military doctrine teaches that the nature of conflict is enduring but that its character changes. 

Warfare is, and always has been, a contest of wills. It is driven by political objectives but is also strongly influenced by human dynamics. No two conflicts are the same; each is characterised by the prevailing conditions, weapons, communications, strategy and tactics of the day. 

And yet, while they are of different times, there are some startling similarities between the Third Afghan War and today’s operations there.

Then, as now, ground forces are operating in areas where the rule of the national government is tenuous at best, where the fight on the ground is fairly evenly balanced, but where we have, and had, domination of the air. 

And just like in 1919, there are still challenges in maintaining logistical support overextended supply lines, and of introducing new equipment and adopting novel tactics. 

So as the centenary of the Third Afghan War ends this year, it probably deserves to be better remembered than it currently is.

For more on the Afghan War, Read Paul Macro’s book ‘Action at Badama Post’. (Use the code BADAMA on checkout to get a £4 discount).

And listen to Paul’s recent interview with BFBS Radio’s Richard Hatch just below to hear Paul talk about his book and the war in general.

Map of North-West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Area done by Pahari Sahib.