11 January 2020

Presidential Display - Afghanistan - Our President, Richard Berry FRPSL, had decided at the start of taking office that he would give one display as President during each of the three years that he was in office.

Following on from Rhodesia and then WW1 Conscientious objectors during his first two years Richard chose a very different subject to present for his third and final presidential display. We were treated to the First Afghan War (1839-1842) and, for the second half of his display, the Second Afghan War (1878-1880).

Each half of the display started with Richard giving a detailed introduction to the background, timeline and key events.  Richard commented on when starting the second half that I could, to an extent, cut and paste as the events were quite similar to those of the First Afghan War with only the personalities being different.  The main theme was the “Great Game” when the ambitions of Russia and Great Britain collided with influence in Afghanistan being a flash point.  This led to invasion by the British, assassination of envoys/political agents, re-invasion and then departure. Russian didn’t get involved in sending in military forces during these particular Afghan Wars! I’m not intending to give a more detailed history of the Afghanistan as this is well covered in literature and on the internet. For the best fictional account of the First Afghan War read the Flashman novels!

Richard explained that the half of his display would take longer than the second half as he intended to read out extracts from the folded letters which gave often (too) vivid descriptions from those who were there as to what was happening.  The routes rate and postal markings were well explained on the sheets displayed by Richard. Four of particular interest were the first red AFFGHANISTAN/PAID applied at Kabul in 1841, the earliest L.P.O (Loodiana Post Office) in red, the earliest of the two known black AFFGHANISTAN/B (Bearing) stamp and the only know example of the red AFIGHANISTAN/Post Paid stamp used at Cabul.  Richard has allowed me to quote from some of the letters (note that the original spellings are retained as in the postal markings already mentioned):

FIRST AFGHAN WAR - BRITISH INVASION: (1) Captain James Parsons of the Army of the Indus writing on 5 August 1839: “On 23rd May I had the pleasure of writing to you from Candahar.  We marched from it on 27th June and at 21 July we arrived at Ghuznee which we found to be very well fortified and the garrison on of upwards of 2,500 men determined to oppose us.  As we had no guns with us sufficiently heavy for breaching it was determined to carry it by assault and on the morning of the 23rd we blew open one of the gates, stormed and carried the place… our loss was only 17 men killed and 165 wounded.  I had the honour to be among the latter.  I received a ball in my lower jaw, but it was cut out and thanks to merciful providence, no bone broken or very serious injury…Had I had any friends at Horse Guards I might expect a CB for this, but they do not pay much attention to our Indian Wars”.

RISING OF THE AFGHANS: (2) John Nicolson (27th Bombay Native Infantry) 1 October 1841: “What do you think of the following piece of policy of Sir W McNaughten at Cabul: Dr Lord the political agent in this country, was murdered by an Affghan some months ago.  The murderer was caught, but Sir WM having discovered that, according to the Mahommedan religion, it was considered lawful for the man to kill one he considered an infidel, let him off scot free; a good lesson to other Affghans to murder Europeans.”.  From the same letter: “ … with a knife, he was seized and taken before Prince Timur, the King’s son, who on hearing the particulars of the case ordered the offender to be immediately blown from a gun, which was done...”. 

(3) Captain Havelock (13th Light infantry) writing from Jelalabad on 14 December 1841: “Sir A Burnes was assassinated with all our adherents in Cabool…we fought out way inch by inch to Gundamuck and on news of the general outbreak returned to this place” (Jelalabad besieged).

(4) Captain William Riddell (Indian Army) 13 January 1842: “just received the melancholy intelligence of the death of Sir W McNachten poor man he was shot by a son of Dost Mahomed during a conference with the chiefs”.

DESTRUCTION OF ELPHINSTON’S ARMY: (5) Riddell 28 January 1842: “ the last letter from Jellalabad received here and written two days after Dr Brydon arrived here with account of the massacre mentions that no other person had arrived to that time but that the bodies of Dr Duff and a few others had been brought in having been killed almost within sight of the walls”.

(6) Lt Wm Fred Willes Atty - 2 March 1842: “ we expect to march to Cabul where our presence is much required to revenge the death of the whole 44th Regiment which has been cut to pieces by the Affghans.  We made a treaty with our enemy to lay down our arms and quit Cabul which the 44th had no sooner done than a proclamation was issued to kill and destroy the whole of our force… you have no idea what a revengeful being I feel myself to be, but it is not wondered at when I hear of such unheard of atrocities as have been committed to our women and children in the North”. 

REPRISALS: (7) Riddell 6 April 1842: “Well here we are at Ally Musjid having forced the far famed Khyber Pass in most gallant style.  We started yesterday morning at four o’clock and arrived at our present ground with the advance guard at a little before sunset having fought every inch of the way”.

(8) Corporal James McKinley (3 Light Dragoons) 11 June 1842: “our men are at anguish to be on the move to have a Slap at these treacherous Cannibals for to have Revenge for the Massacre of the 44th Regt. of Foot.  I suppose you have heard of the Massacre of an Army in Affghanistan their was 10,000 killed in November last through Down right treachery and neglect of the General in Command”. 

(9) Riddell 15 September 1842 (sent from Kabul on the day of its capture: “We arrived at Cabool this morning… Here we are safe at Cabool but as the Daks [messangers] have no chance of getting through the passes just at present you must be satisfied with this scrap of paper which the General has most kindly promised to send with his express…we have got five of the prisoners… the enemy in some instances fought desperately and were bayoneted by the Europeans and sepoys. Their loss must have been very great and I’m sorry to say we have also a large list casualties”.

(10) Riddell 13 November 1842: “We have a very disagreeable business before us, viz an execution of a native officer (from the 27th Native Infantry)… who was tried for desertion whilst we were in Cabool and sentenced to death. He is to be shot the day after tomorrow for which the troops with us will be paraded.  He deserves the punishment as he not only deserted when in Ghuznee but induced a great number of Musselmen in the regiment to go with him and was afterwards seen fighting against us.  He came into our camp on our way to Cabool and was appointed to do duty with the 26th little thinking that his officers and others then in the hands of the Affgans would live to recognise and convict him”. 

(11) Riddell 16 November 1842: “the poor subhadar of the 27th was shot yesterday afternoon in front of the whole of the Brigade drawn up in three sides of a square. He was marched round the whole of the firing party, 15 men of the 35th in front, then the band playing the dead march on his right… He marched all round three faces of the square without slightest falter keeping pace with the music…” 

WITHDRAWAL: (12) Gunner Hulance 28 April 1843 written from Meerut in India after the withdrawal: “We succeeded in resquing the whole of the Prisoners from their hands then we burnt and destroyed every town and fort in their country and teached them a lesson which they never will forget…”.

Richard finished the first half by showing some medals including an example of the rarest First Afghan War issued for the defence of Kelat I Ghilzie.

SECOND AFGHAN WAR: The second half of the display contained mostly stamped envelopes that contained a range of Field Post Office cachets.  Examples were shown from all three of the invading field forces (Kandahar, Peshawar and Kurram).  Most envelopes from this second campaign do not unfortunately contain their original correspondence so a vivid account from those writing whilst they were there isn’t possible

INVASION: Examples were shown of the following Field Post Offices and extracts are given from some letters:

Kurram Valley Field Force; anonymous FPO 12; straightline FIELD PO; FPO 15;

FPO 10; FPO 9 (only example known before 1880); FPO 12 (earliest known registered cover)

(1) Corporal William Cameron (72nd Highlanders) 15 April 1879: “I get the name of Keeping the best fiting Clothing in the whole Regiment.  I spend a good deal of my pay that way instead of drinking it.  It is 7 months since I tasted intoxicating liquor of any sort”.

Peshawar Valley Field Force; FPO 15; FPO 13; Camp of Exercise

(2) Captain Richard Creed (17th (Leicestershire) Regiment) 23 March 1879: “We have been having bother with some of the hill tribes of late… on the 19th…in the evening the Hill fellows (300 men) attacked 20 of men of my Regiment who were guarding grazing camels. They killed two of our men (one man was cut to pieces with swords) and we killed 14 and wounded 6 and in the evening our fellows caught 1 man and shot him next morning… We marched 6 miles further up into the hills, blew up 7 towers and burnt 2 villages and returned without being fired upon, though we saw several thousand who retired as we advanced.  Tomorrow morning we march to Jellalabad”.

Kandahar Valley Field Force; FPO 2

MURDER: A mourning letter was shown from Sir Louis Cavagni’s mother to his widow sent only six days after his murder when British Resident in Kabul: “… not till this morning could I make up my mind to think there was no hope… I am glad to see how the Queen and country feel his loss”.

RETRIBUTION: Kabul Field Force; FPO 11; FPO 12; FIELD FPO

(3) Lt Campbell 8 October 1879 (sent after the battle of Charasia when Gen Roberts with 4,000 men and 18 guns defeated an Afghan army of 8,000).  Four days later he entered Kabul. ”We came to fight with the Afghan’s on Monday.  I am alright not touched.  I have just written home in pencil to let mother know”.

(4) Sergeant W Cameron (72nd Highlanders) 14 November 1879: “ … I will give you a sample of the way that we are finding the Rebels in Cabul they are all tried by Military Commission and if the evidence is sufficient to convict them they are Hung the next morning – for Example we Hung 11 on the tenth of this month 28 on the eleventh and 12 on the twelfth …”

The Kabul-Kandahar Field Force relieved the garrison at Kandahar on 31 August 1880 and hostilities effectively ceased.  Once the new Emir was installed at Kabul on 11 August 1880 the British troops in North Afghanistan were withdrawn via the Khyber Pass.  To finish his display Richard showed some material from other small field forces in southern Afghanistan.  These were the Thal-Chotiali Field Force and the Vitakri Field Force.  Also shown was material from the seized territories of Sibi and Pishin that were retained by the British.

The very final items shown were some medals including those of Major Edward Mainwaring of the 4th Goorka Regiment.  The major brings the story of the nineteenth century Afghan Wars to an elegant close.  He was born at Cabul on 13th October 1841 at the commencement of the rebellion there.  He was with his mother during the terrible retreat and massacre of the entire British force and camp followers, some 14,000 souls in January 1842.  The camel on which they were riding was shot through the head, and Mrs Mainwaring carrying the child had to walk in the deep snow all through the turmoil and carnage in those fearful narrow mountain passes.  Mrs Mainwaring and her child were among the captives held as prisoners by the Afghans from 11th January till the 17 September 1842 when they were finally rescued.  During the Second Afghan War he was part of the Peshawar Field Force and fought at Ali Musjid (21 November 1878) and his Afghanistan medal also has two other clasps for Kabul and Kandahar.  His Kabul to Kandahar Star was also shown.  As an aside, the display also included a cover addressed to Mrs G C Dobbs, Royal School Cavan in Ireland, sent by Captain G C Dobbs (Bombay Staff Corps) serving with the Commissariat Department, Kandahar Force and datestamped 2 September 1880 - any relation to me - I don’t know!

The material shown belongs to Camellia Plc for whom Richard works. Robin Davis who presided at this meeting offered sincere thanks on behalf of the Forces Postal History Society for allowing Richard to so ably display this most exquisite and historically important material from their collection. 

© Forces Postal History Society 2020