In the 1830s, the British were firmly entrenched in India but by 1837, feared a Russian invasion through the Khyber and Bolan Passes as the Russian Empire had expanded towards the British dominion. The British sent an envoy to Kabul to form an alliance with Afghanistan's emir, Dost Muhammad against Russia. The Emir was in favour of an alliance but wanted British help in recapturing Peshawar which the Sikhs had captured in 1834. The British refused to help. Dost Muhammad then started negotiating with the Russians who had also sent an envoy to Kabul. This led the Governor General of India, Lord Auckland to conclude that Dost Muhammad was anti-British. British fears of a Russian invasion of India took one step closer to becoming a reality when negotiations between the Afghans and Russians broke down in 1838. This led to Persian troops, along with their Russian allies, attacking the city of Herat in western Afghanistan in an attempt to annex it. Russia wanting to increase its presence in South and Central Asia had formed an alliance with Persia which had territorial disputes with Afghanistan as Herat had been part of the Persian empire and only in 1750 had it been taken over by Afghanistan. Lord Auckland's plan was to drive away the besiegers and install a ruler in Afghanistan who was pro-British. The British chose Shuja Shah Durrani to be the new leader of Afghanistan. He was the former ruler of Afghanistan and had formed a strategic alliances with Britain during the Napoleonic Wars against Russia and France but had been deposed and was living in exile in Lahore.
The British assembled two divisions from their Bengal Army led by Sir Harry Fane and another force of a single division led from Bombay by Sir John Keane. The Bombay Army, numbering some 6,000 men, would sail by sea and land near the Indus river and then march into Afghanistan to join Fane's forces. Before the invasion was set to begin, news had reached India that the Persians and the Russians had abandoned the siege of Herat. Many British officers then believed that there was no longer a reason to invade Afghanistan. However, Lord Aukland was adamant and pressed on. The size of the invasion force was reduced from three divisions to two because there was no longer any prospect of confronting Persian and Russian forces. The second Bengal division which was originally supposed to take part in the invasion was now relegated as a reserve force and would remain in India. The quickest route to Kabul was to march across the Punjab and enter Afghanistan by way of Peshawar and the Khyber Pass, but Ranjit Singh, the ruler of Punjab would never consent to such a large force crossing the Punjab. The invasion route had to be through the southern passes, with the approach to Kabul via Kandahar and Ghazni; a journey three times the distance of the direct route.
The Bengal Army, which now numbered some 9,500 men, would march inland towards Quetta after assembling in Ferozpur. In Quetta, it would link up with the Bombay Army and then invade Afghanistan. The Bengal Army would also be accompanied by 6,000 men led by Shuja Shah Durrani. The men under Durrani's command were Afghan exiles who believed that he was the rightful ruler of Afghanistan. The total size of the invasion force now numbered some 20,500 men. Sir Harry Fane refused to take part in the invasion because the Russians and Persians had abandoned the siege of Herat and the pretext for the invasion of Afghanistan was no longer there and so the command of the invasion force passed to Sir John Keane.
The Bombay Army landed near the Indus river in December 1838 and continued to march where it met with the Bengal Army in Quetta. However, the Invasion force was short on supplies as taking the longer Southern route into Afghanistan had caused supplies to be exhausted and also many British supply convoys were lost due to harassing attacks by tribesman in Baluchistan.
Many soldiers were starving and there was only enough water to feed the men which caused many horses to die. However, Sir John Keane pressed on with the advance into Afghanistan through the Bolan and Kojuk passes. His forces marched 147 miles into Afghanistan and reached Kandahar on May 4, 1839. The local city leaders escaped to Western Afghanistan and the city was captured without the British even firing a shot. The army's next objective was the fortress city of Ghazni as it commanded the trade routes and roads leading into Kabul. Before a final advance towards Kabul could be made, Ghazni had to be captured.
The severe shortages of supplies along with the lack of draft horses had led to heavy siege equipment to be left in Kandahar as the Army no longer had the necessary number of draft horses to pull the equipment. The Army arrived at Ghazni on July 21, 1839. Initial reconnaissance showed the city to be heavily fortified with a 70-foot wall and a flooded moat. The defense of the city was led by Hyder Khan, the son of Dost Muhammad. Lacking siege equipment meant that the only way for the British to capture the city was through a frontal attack which would result in heavy casualties.
However, captured Afghan soldiers were interrogated by the Army's chief engineer, Colonel Thompson, to whom they revealed that all of the gates into Ghazni had been sealed with rocks and debris except the Kabul Gate which was in the north. Thompson spied on the gate and observed an Afghan courier entering the city which confirmed what the prisoners had said. Further inspection showed the gate to be lightly guarded and inadequately defended. It was then decided to attack the city through Kabul gate. The Army went around the city and camped in the north side facing Kabul gate.
While the British forces had encircled the city, Shuja Shah Durrani and his forces had set up camp few miles away from the city to prevent any Afghan forces trying to relieve the besieged city. On July 22, 1839, thousands of Ghilji tribesmen attacked Shuja Shah Durrani’s contingent but were repelled. With the Afghan relief forces driven away, the British were ready to mount an attack to capture the city.
British artillery was positioned to give covering fire to the advancing troops and 4 British regiments were formed into a storming party commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Dennie. The rest of the three British regiments formed the main attacking column commanded by Brigadier Sale. High winds prevented the garrison from realizing they were about to be attacked.
At 3am on July 23, 1839, Indian engineers of the Bengal and Bombay Sappers and Miners moved towards the gate. As the engineers neared the gate they were fired upon by the Afghans inside the city. The British artillery bombarded the city and gave cover to the engineers as they reached the gate. Gunpowder was piled besides the door and the subsequent explosion destroyed the gate. The signal was given to attack and the 4 regiments led by Lieutenant Colonel Dennie rushed through the shattered gate. Bitter hand-to-hand fighting during the darkness of the night ensued. The Afghan defenders launched a counterattack which cut off the storming party from the supporting columns. Brigadier Sale's forces fought their way through the gate to link up with Dennie's encircled forces. Sale's regiments linked up with Dennie's but Sale was severely wounded. The British then fought their way into the center of the city and by dawn the city was captured. The British forces suffered 200 men killed and wounded while the Afghans lost nearly 500 men and 1,600 were taken prisoner with an unknown number wounded.
General Keane was, for his service, elevated to the Peerage as Baron Keane of Ghazni. He left a small garrison in Ghazni and began to march his forces towards Kabul on July 30, 1839. When the Afghan ruler, Dost Muhammad, heard about the fall of Ghazni, he asked for terms of surrender but the British offer was exile in India, which was unacceptable to him. He fled Kabul towards Western Afghanistan and the Afghan army surrendered. The British installed their puppet, Shuja Shah Durrani, as the new ruler of Afghanistan.
The Indian Engineers won a slew of awards with Capt A.C. Peat of the Bombay Sappers winning a Brevet-majority and a C.B.. Thirteen N.C.O.s and sappers of the Bengal Sappers and six of the Bombay Sappers were awarded the newly instituted Indian Order of Merit, (Third Class), in effect becoming the first recipients of a formal gallantry award by soldiers of the native Indian Army under British rule. However, two officers, Lt H.M. Durand and Macleod, who had played critical roles in the assault were not recognised by the government of India. The Ghuznee Medal, a British campaign medal, was awarded to all ranks of the British Army who participated in the storming of the fortress.
Ghazni is still feted as a major feat of arms by both groups of Engineers, which still exist today. The Bombay Sappers celebrate Ghazni Day each year on 28 February while the Bengal Sappers incorporated the Tower of Ghazni in their War Memorial constructed at Roorkee in 1911 to 1913. A bust of Subedar Devi Singh, first recipient of the Indian Order of Merit was unveiled by Mr Virendra Kumar Singh, a fifth generation descendant of Subedar Devi Singh.
A battle honour of 'Ghuznee 1839' was instituted by the Governor General in India vide Gazette of the Governor General dated 19 November 1839 and date added vide Gazette of India No 875 of 1907. The battle honour is not considered to be repugnant. The honour was awarded to all native Indian units which were employed in the reduction of the fortress:4th Bengal Irregular Cavalry (1 Horse today).
Poona Auxiliary Horse (Poona Horse).
Bombay Sappers & Miners.
19th Bombay Infantry (2 Jat today).
1st Bombay Cavalry (13th Duke of Connaught's Own Lancers today of (Pakistan).
2nd, 3rd Bengal Cavalry (Mutinied in 1857).
2nd and 3rd Companies Bengal Sappers and Miners (Mutinied in 1857).
2nd, 16th, 35th, 38th and 48th Bengal Infantry (Mutinied in 1857).
The battle honour "Ghuznee" was awarded in 1839 by the Honourable East India Company to the 1st Bengal European Regiment. This was altered in 1844 to "Ghuznee, 1839" to differentiate it from an honour granted for a further engagement in 1842. The regiment later joined the British Army to become the 101st Regiment of Foot (Royal Bengal Fusiliers) and in 1881 the 1st Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. The latter regiment was disbanded in 1922.
In 1840 the battle honour "Ghuznee" (altered to "Ghuznee, 1839" in 1844) was awarded to the following units of the British Army: 4th (The Queen's Own) Regiment of Light Dragoons (now part of the Queen's Royal Hussars)
16th (The Queen's) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons (Lancers) (now part of the Queen's Royal Lancers)
2nd (Queen's Royal) Regiment of Foot (now part of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment
13th (1st Somersetshire) Regiment (Light Infantry) (now part of The Rifles)
17th (Leicestershire) Regiment of Foot (now part of the Royal Anglian Regiment)
4th (The Queen's Own) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons
16th (The Queen's) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons (Lancers)
2nd (The Queen's Royal) Regiment of Foot
13th (1st Somersetshire) Regiment (Light Infantry)
17th (The Leicestershire) Regiment of Foot
2nd Bengal Light Cavalry
3rd Bengal Light Cavalry
3rd Skinner’s Horse
34th Poona Horse
Shah Shujah’s Regiment
1st Bengal Fusiliers (European Regiment) later the Munster Fusiliers
16th Bengal Native Infantry
48th Bengal Native Infantry
31st Bengal Native Infantry
42nd Bengal Native Infantry
43rd Bengal Native Infantry
2nd Bengal Native Infantry
27th Bengal Native Infantry
19th Bombay Infantry later the 119th Multan Regiment
2nd Company, Bengal Sappers and Miners
3rd Company, Bengal Sappers and Miners
1st Company, Bombay Sappers and Miners