N.R. Jenzen-Jones & Jack Shanley
In 1869, Sher Ali Khan, emir of Afghanistan, embarked upon a military modernisation programme of significant scale and ambition. In an attempt to maintain autonomy in the face of British and Russian great power competition in the region, Sher Ali oversaw the transformation of Afghanistan’s artillery production capabilities from artisanal to industrial. As a result, the Afghan military transitioned from a reliance on handmade brass cannon to state-of-the-art iron breech-loading guns. However, despite this substantial modernisation effort, Sher Ali’s guns were unable to stand against the British Empire.
When the time came to resist the British Empire by force, the Afghan army Sher Ali had worked so hard to modernise was quickly swept aside. The British launched the first campaign of the Second Anglo-Afghan War in November 1878, and quickly forced major victories that left the approach to Kabul unguarded. Photographs, including one taken by photographer John Burke (ca. 1843–1900) following the Battle of Ali Masjid on 21 November 1878, show the results of early British victories (see Figure 1.1). In the Ali Masjid photograph, 24 captured artillery pieces of various types are pictured, displayed neatly by British and British Indian officers. This matches the details of seized artillery from this battle given in post-War British Indian reporting. Another photograph from the same album—taken by Burke, or by Sir Benjamin Simpson (1831–1923) or another of Burke’s contemporaries during the campaign—shows at least 16 guns captured following the Battle of Peiwar Kotal (28–29 November 1878).
Emir Sher Ali Khan died on 21 February 1879, leaving the Afghan military, and its new weapons, under the command of his son Yaqub Khan. An uneasy peace with the British was reached, but it would not last long. Following a local uprising and the subsequent massacre of British Embassy staff in Kabul on 3 September 1879, British and Indian forces moved to capture the city and punish the perpetrators. Yaqub Khan fled to the safety of the British camp, but the rebellious Afghan forces attempted to mount an organised defence of the city. They were unable to seriously hinder the British advance in any meaningful way. By 8 October, scarcely a month later, both Kabul city and the fortress at Sherpur were under British control. Emir Yaqub Khan abdicated later in October, but his brother Ayub Khan succeeded to the Emirship and led a continuing revolt.
Perhaps no event represents the battlefield failure of Sher Ali’s rearmament programme as completely as the British capture of Kabul in 1879. At the outbreak of hostilities, the British had determined there were 379 artillery pieces in the Emir’s possession. Of these, 256 were captured during the course of the Second Anglo-Afghan war. Of the captured weapons, 214 were taken by the Kabul Field Force in their capture of the city in October 1879. Poor battlefield leadership had seen the fruits of nearly a decade of industrialisation seized in a single engagement. The 214 guns captured during the occupation of Kabul (between 6 and 12 October 1879), were recorded as follows:
12-pdr gun – Afghan (4)Intelligence Branch Army Head-Quarters, India, 1907, p. 654
9-pdr SB Bronze gun – Afghan (2)
6-pdr SB Bronze gun – Afghan (16)
3-pdr SB Bronze gun – Afghan (51)
8-inch SB Bronze Howitzer – Afghan (2)
12-pdr SB Bronze Howitzer – Afghan (5)
8-inch SB Bronze Mortar – Afghan (6)
5 1/2-inch SB Bronze Mortar – Afghan (6)
24-pdr SB Iron gun – Afghan (2)
20-pdr BL Iron rifled – Afghan (6)
12-pdr BL Iron rifled – Afghan (6)
9-pdr BL Iron rifled – Afghan (14)
8-pdr BL Iron rifled – Afghan (6)
6-pdr BL Iron rifled – Afghan (22)
4-pdr BL Iron rifled – Afghan (11)
7-pdr ML Iron rifled – Afghan (26)
8-pdr ML Steel rifled – Afghan (21)
One image, labelled in pencil “Captured guns – Cabul”, shows many of the guns captured following the engagement (see Figure 1.2). The image, taken by John Burke at the Sherpur Cantonment, shows the commander of the Kabul Field Force, Major General Sir Frederick Roberts, and his staff on horseback inspecting the captured guns. It showcases the wide variety of sizes and patterns of artillery pieces in the Emir’s possession before the conflict. Although the rudimentary photograph and the arrangement of the guns—especially the smaller ones—makes them hard to count, the image shows at least 105. These include a mix of bronze, iron, and (likely) steel types, and both muzzle-loading and breech-loading designs. Mountain guns, howitzers, and mortars are all represented.
Sher Ali’s impressive rearmament of the Afghan Army serves both as an example of the successful, rapid creation of a military industrial base and as a testament to the limits of state-of-the-art weaponry without the necessary supporting structures. Despite manufacturing equipment on par with some of the most effective militaries in the world at the time, Sher Ali and his immediate successors were unable to field an effective army. Their modern guns were rendered useless by a lack of military leadership and poor tactics. Following the capture of Kabul, the workshops built by Sher Ali were completely destroyed by a powder magazine explosion at the Bala Hissar, almost entirely undoing the Emir’s efforts. The British occupation and the subsequent explosions at Bala Hissar Arsenal left Kabul unable to manufacture weapons in any meaningful capacity until after Emir Abdul Rahman Khan began construction of a series of modern, steam-powered workshops in Kabul in 1887.
The authors would like to offer their sincere thanks to Vernon Easley, who assisted in the preparation of this article.
Burke, John. 1880. Afghanistan 1879–80. Photography album. Available via: <https://www.wdl.org/en/item/11534/#page=3&collection=afghanistan-1879-80>.
Easley, Vernon & N.R. Jenzen-Jones. 2021 (forthcoming). The Emir’s New Rifles: A History of the Kabul Arsenal, 1885–1925. Nashville, TN: Headstamp Publishing.
Hensman, Howard. 1882. The Afghan War of 1879–80. 2nd ed. London: W.H Allen & Co.
Intelligence Branch Army Head-Quarters, India. 1907. The Second Afghan War, 1878-80 Official Account. London: John Murray.
Kakar, M. Hasan K. 1979. Government and Society in Afghanistan: The Reign of Amir `Abd Al-Rahman Khan. Austin: University of Texas Press.
N. R. Jenzen-Jones, Vernon Easley & Miles Vining. 2020. ‘Panāhpur: A history of the Martini rifle in Afghanistan, 1878–1925’. Arms & Armour, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 80–106.