“Here lies the Victor of Maiwand”
by Ali Jan
Maiwand is a small village town in Afghanistan, about 45 miles from Kandahar that gained fame during the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1880. It was at this battlefield that the British army suffered its most embarrassing defeat at the hands of Sardar Muhammad Ayub Khan, an Afghan general, whose mausoleum is in Peshawar.
He was the son of the King Ameer Sher Ali, who ruled Afghanistan from 1863-1878. Ayub Khan was born in 1855 and spent most of his early life in Afghanistan. His brother Yakub Khan ascended the throne after his father’s demise and Ayub Khan became the governor of Herat.
The term ‘Great Game’ was popularized during the British Empire’s conflict with Tsarist Russian Empire in the 19th century. Afghanistan and its monarchs became pawns in this imperial game of rivalry and strategic influence and its outcome was to have a direct bearing on the British Empire’s hold over India. The British had not forgotten the terrible First Afghan War disaster when an entire army of 15,000 was wiped out in 1842 ending the four years of their initial presence there. Retribution and vengeance were key considerations that paved the way for another military campaign. Incited by the murder of the British agent Major Louis Cavagnari at the Kabul Residency and to counter the increasing tilt towards Russia by the Afghans, the British army once again advanced into Afghanistan in 1878 commencing the Second Afghan War.
Soon after their arrival, the British deposed Ayub’s brother Yakub Khan and then a long campaign ensued. The battle at Maiwand was fought on 27th July 1880 when Ayub Khan successfully led 6000 men and intercepted the British army at this place in order to thwart their invasion of Afghanistan. The terrible heat of the Afghan summer that year and other logistic difficulties greatly disadvantaged the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment led by General Burrows in its advance and it was annihilated by the Afghans who tore through all its lines. The victory is often cited as being perhaps the only instance where an Asiatic leader won a pitched battle fought against a vastly superior European army.
Sardar Muhammad Ayub Khan is revered as a freedom fighter and national hero in Afghanistan. Many 19th century poets have composed ballads about the ‘Ghazi of Maiwand’ and glorified him for giving the foreign invaders a bloody nose. There is a monument to the battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan. The tower, known as Minar-e-Maiwand was erected by King Zahir Shah in 1959 in the town square. A Pashto inscription, taken from a poem, relates a legend how at one stage the Afghans were preparing for retreat when a young woman named Malalai, stepped forward and pleaded to them: "If you do not taste of martyrdom today on this field of Maiwand, By God I am afraid you'll lead an ignominious life forever more." It is recounted, upon hearing this the men turned back to win the battle.
A colossal cast-iron lion statue in the memory of the men of 66th Regiment of Foot who died at Maiwand stands in Forbury Gardens, Reading in Berkshire England. The few remaining survivors that managed to reach the safety of the British garrison at Kandahar, got a medal from Queen Victoria on return to their country. One of the medal recipients was a dog named Bobbie.
The unprecedented British defeat caused a sensation in Europe and provided much literary fodder for English writers such as Rudyard Kipling who composed a poem on it entitled, That Day. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character Watson is actually based on a surgeon of the 66th Regiment. In A Study in Scarlet (1881), Watson describes how he got shot whilst attending to a fallen soldier at Maiwand. "How are you? …You have been to Afghanistan, I perceive." are the opening words spoken by Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson. “How on earth did you know that?” Watson asks in admiration. It is the first of many displays of Holmes's brilliant deductive abilities.
Ayub Khan’s victory was short-lived as another army under the direction of Field Marshal Frederick Roberts came in his pursuit after a few weeks. And when the British army drew back into India leaving the Afghans to govern themselves, Ayub’s cousin and staunch enemy Abdur Rahman Khan proclaimed himself Ameer routing Ayub’s supporters. Ayub Khan was forced to flee to Herat and later sought refuge in Persia where he spent many years in exile. The new King Ameer Abdur Rahman continued to hatch conspiracies against him and made his life difficult even there. On his part, Ayub Khan too tried vainly to topple him and attempted a coup against his cousin but with no luck. As time wore on and the political landscape gradually changed Ayub Khan finally turned himself over to the British emissary in Meshed, Persia. He was sent to India as a state prisoner and kept in confinement for sometime. He spent the last years of his life with his family in Lahore, living off a pension fixed by the Government of India. He died on 7th April 1914 and was buried in Peshawar.
Today, the Victor of Maiwand rests alone in his glory in a small marble mausoleum in the Durrani Graveyard near Wazir Bagh, just outside the old walled city of Peshawar. His tomb made of pure white marble is a fine example of hand craftsmanship. It has a round canopy and bears beautiful floral carvings, geometric patterns and Islamic calligraphy. The mausoleum’s construction was commissioned by the government of Afghanistan during the reign of King Habibullah Khan. The gravestone carries a Persian inscription that lavishes much praise on the inmate. Other dignitaries buried in the Durrani Graveyard compound include his mother (wife of Ameer Shere Ali and queen of Afghanistan), Sardar Ibrahim Khan (brother), Sardar Jalaluddin Khan and other close family members.
The Great Game of the old empires has entered a new round. In the current setting the rules are the same however the players and pawns are different. The future of Afghanistan, it appears, is still as undecided today as it was more than a century ago. Peace in that country may still be a long shot, however its former royal family members continue to rest in eternal peace in this quiet little graveyard.