“An indelible stigma of disgrace”: The Guns of Kabul

My thanks to Bob Churcher, one of the discoverers of the guns, who helped me with this article. All photographs were taken by the author in Kabul between 2004 and 2006. The one exception is the Turner sketch which is reproduced under the Tate’s permission for “websites that are primarily information-led, research-oriented and obviously non-commercial in nature”. The drawings of siege carriages are taken from Buckle’s book (details below).

Illuminated initial T

here is nothing surprising about encountering arms and munitions in Afghanistan. Old Soviet tanks and aircraft still litter the terrain. However, to find British cannons dating from the nineteenth century lying in a scrapheap was a remarkable discovery. But what exactly are they and how did they come to be in Kabul?

The British Embassy in Kabul

After a decade of absence from Afghanistan the British Foreign Office set up a new Embassy in Kabul in the weeks following the tragic events of 9/11 and the subsequent removal of the Taliban government. Initially the small diplomatic team lived (or rather camped) in the “hospital compound” of the former British Embassy which had been ceded to Pakistan in 1993. However by 2003 the Embassy, with all its military and development advisors, had outgrown the hospital compound and looked for more spacious accommodation. The solution was found in the former Bulgarian Embassy in the centre of the city. It had none of the colonial charm or grandeur of the previous site but it was spacious and much more convenient; close to the Presidential Palace and other government and diplomatic buildings. A great deal of work was required to bring this property, much neglected since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, up to standard and fit for a modern diplomatic mission with cabling for modern IT and security measures against possible terrorist attack.

Three contractors working on the FCO funded project, two Britons and an Australian, were rummaging for building materials in a scrap yard on the hillside behind the old tank workshop north of the Jalalabad road. Lying amidst heaps of old wreckage of aircraft, helicopters and tanks they spotted an old 19th Century cannon half buried in scrap. After a more thorough search they found three more. Following some negotiation with the supervisor they brought them to their workshop where, over the ensuing weeks, they built some rudimentary wooden stands before donating them to the Embassy. With the Ambassador’s permission they were then installed outside the front gate.

Left: One of the two eight-inch howitzers. Right: The sixteen-pounder made by Samuel Walker and Co.. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Some months later I took a few photographs and notes and now, a dozen years afterwards, I resolved to identify what they are and how they came to be in Kabul. The reader will have to forgive a minimum of technical detail without which the mystery cannot be solved.

All four guns are made of iron and are of British manufacture. Specialists would describe them as SBML. This means that they have smooth bores (SB) without any rifling which would spin and thus stabilise a projectile in flight. They are also muzzle loading (ML) signifying that they are loaded from the front and not, as with modern artillery, from the breech or the rear of the weapon. So an operator would have rammed a charge of gunpowder down the full length of the barrel and then rolled in a cannon ball before igniting the charge through the 'touch-hole' or 'vent'.

Left: Markings on the 1807 cannon. Middle: The trunnion mark for Bailey Pegg Company. Right: Illustrations from Buckle's “Bengal Artillery”. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Of the four the oldest is dated 1798 under the motif G3R for King George III and the letter 'P' meaning that it has been 'proofed' or tested at Woolwich to ensure that it could withstand the internal forces of combustion. The manufacturer is 'WC' on the barrel and 'W Co' on the left trunnion — trunnions are the two cylindrical protrusions on either side of the barrel just forward of the centre of gravity (4/7ths of the distance from the muzzle) which allows the weapon to be fitted to a carriage and elevated and depressed. This is the mark of Samuel Walker and Company of Rotherham. Walker’s were perhaps most famous for having made some 80 of HMS Victory’s 105 guns used at the battle of Trafalgar. The artist J.M.W. Turner sketched Interior of a Cannon Foundry at Walker’s at about the time that this gun was being manufactured. The figures '42-2-2' follow. This signifies the weight of the gun in hundredweights (cwt). So it is 42 cwt plus 2 quarters of a cwt and 2 pounds; making a total of 4,762 pounds. (There are 112 pounds in a hundredweight (cwt) and 28 in a quarter cwt.) On the right trunnion is the mark 'A233' which is the manufacturer’s number. It is an 18 pounder gun; meaning that it fires a cannon ball weighing 18 pounds. It was manufactured according to the Blomefield pattern.

J.M.W. Turner’s Interior of a Cannon Foundry. Watercolor. Courtesy of the Tate Gallery. Click on image to enlarge it.

In 1780 Thomas Blomefield, was appointed Inspector of Artillery and Superintendent of the Royal Brass Foundry at Woolwich. Three years later he was given the task of reorganising the Ordnance Department, and embarked on the design of a new system of ordnance. He decided to replace the wide variety of cannon styles with a more standardised range of products. His 'system' determined the calibre of the weapon, specified the length, wall thickness and other key dimensions. When the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars began in 1793 the various private gun foundries in Britain were contracted to produce large numbers of naval guns to Blomefield’s standard pattern.

The second cannon is dated 1807 also from George III’s long reign (1760-1820). It too is an 18 pounder and its weight is shown as '42-0-25' totalling 4,729 pounds. It was manufactured by the famous Carron Company of Falkirk, the inventors of the short 'Carronade' gun which had been so effective at short range aboard British ships of the Trafalgar era. However this is not a Carronade gun; it is a Blomefield with the telltale characteristic of a 'cascabel loop' above the knob or button at the rear. A rope would have been threaded through this loop to restrict the amount of recoil on the gun deck of a naval ship. On the left trunnion the number 71094 above 'Carron 1807' signifies the manufacturer’s production number. On other websites I have noted 70172 for 1806, 70807, 70967 and 71851 for 1807 on guns now in Canada. This is useful confirmation that this is a genuine Carron gun and not, for example, one copied from a Blomefield pattern by the East India Company's gun foundry in India. This foundry had been set up in Fort William, Calcutta in 1770 but its products were not deemed reliable until the 1820s (Young p.135).

The other two guns are howitzers, sometimes referred to as 'siege howitzers', with much shorter barrels and designed to fire a cannon ball at a higher trajectory. One dates from 1853 and was manufactured by 'BP and Co' which is the Bailey Pegg Company whose factory was at Brierley Hill near Stourbridge. It weighs only '22-2-14' (2,534 pounds) and has an 8 inch calibre (the diameter of the barrel). The fourth weapon, also a howitzer, has fewer details but was produced in 1854.

So how did these four cannons find their way to Afghanistan? The strong probability is that the two 18 pounders were used in the First Afghan War of 1839-42. This was Britain's first invasion of the country which ended in the ignominious massacre of the army during its retreat from Kabul. The guns would have entered Afghanistan either with the invading British 'Army of the Indus' in 1839 or with General Pollock’s subsequent 'Army of Retribution' in 1842. The 'Army of the Indus' included two troops of Bengal Horse Artillery and two companies of Bengal Foot Artillery. It might seem surprising that guns made in 1798 and 1807 would have been in use 40 years after manufacture but in fact it was quite common for cannon to be used for half a century or more.

Captain Buckle’s History of the Bengal Artillery records the nightmarish journey of the artillery through the Bolan and Khojak Passes into Afghanistan in 1839 drawn by horses, bullocks and camels over the rocky and boulder-strewn terrain. The camels in particular proved woefully inept at this task and died by the dozen, being replaced by horses and much later by elephants. The majority of the Bengal Artillery’s guns would have been the lighter, 6 and 9 pounder bronze field guns mounted on carriages with large diameter cart wheels and iron axles enabling them to be dragged or drawn with relative ease. There were also some shorter 12 and 24 pounder howitzers.

The heavy iron 18 pounder guns would only have been sent as siege artillery mounted on heavy-duty gun carriages, made at the Cossipore works outside Calcutta. The even heavier 24 and 32 pounder siege artillery was probably left behind in India. Buckle records that on reaching Kandahar “the heavy guns” were left there and the siege of Ghazni in July was carried out using bags of gunpowder to blow in the gates rather than siege artillery to make a breach in the walls. Later, as the campaign turned from success to disaster, numerous officers and men of the Bengal Artillery died in the chaotic retreat from Kabul in January 1842.

Patrick Macrory describes how the Afghans only allowed the British to take nine guns on their retreat; 3 mule guns and 6 Horse Artillery guns. There were also some guns left behind in the Bala Hissar, the great fortress which still overlooks Kabul. “All the rest, with all the muskets and ordnance stores in the magazine, were to be surrendered to the Afghans”. He adds “the surrender of the guns was the hallmark of a beaten and humiliated force and an indelible stigma of disgrace”. (p.201 and p.203). From the description and the circumstances (with the British careful not to cause the least offence to the Afghans) it seems likely that none of the surrendered guns was spiked. ('Spiking' a gun involved forcing a spike (in reality often a bayonet) into the touch hole and then breaking it off. It was less effective than bursting the barrel or blowing off the trunnions but it was often the last resort during a battle when the gun was at risk of capture.)

The retreat itself turned into a nightmare. “Owing to the starved condition of the horses, which disabled them from pulling the guns through the deep snow and rugged mountain-passes, the guns were, one by one, spiked and abandoned” (Buckle p.434). Apart from Surgeon Major Brydon and several prisoners the whole force was annihilated in the passes leading to the Indian frontier. An impressive memorial (see Datta in bibliography below) to the fallen gunners still stands at the Bengal Artillery’s former base at Dum Dum, on the outskirts of Kolkata (Calcutta).

Pollock’s avenging army also included two troops of Bengal Horse Artillery and two companies of Bengal Foot Artillery. On the 15th September 1842 Pollock retook Kabul. Five weeks earlier the British General Nott evacuated Kandahar. Buckle records that “the main force marched on the 8th August with “four 18-pounder guns attached” ( p.447). These are probably the same "heavy guns" which had been left at Kandahar back in 1839. Ghazni was occupied on 31st August before Nott joined Pollock in Kabul in mid-to-late September.

Before Pollock and Nott withdrew to India in October 1842 there are two further mentions of 18 pounders by Buckle. “A force was sent against Istaliff on the 30th September (1842), in which the "mountain-train" under Captain Backhouse, and two 18-pounders under Lieutenant Cornish, were employed.” (p.448). Later “the combined armies now turned homewards, meeting with many difficulties from the exhausted state of the cattle and the obstacles in the passes; so much so, that the four 18-pounders which had originally marched with the Army of the Indus were burst in the passes and their carriages burnt”. (p.449). These four guns are likely to be the same weapons which Nott brought from Kandahar in August.

Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India mentions (III, 446) that Pollock did not have enough carriages to return all his artillery to India. He took only 44 pieces with him. The clear implication is that he left some behind. Without doubt he would have taken the most potent weapons and left those in the worst condition and would have damaged any which might otherwise be usable. It is impossible to judge whether our two 18 pounders were amongst those he left behind, or whether they were the guns supposedly “burst” during Pollock’s withdrawal, or indeed whether they were surrendered to the Afghans before the chaotic retreat in January. Only close inspection would reveal whether they have cracks to the interior of the barrel (known as "honeycombing") or whether they were spiked and the spike subsequently removed from the vent. But there would have been few of the heavy 18 pounders and we can be sure that our weapons took part in these epic events.

The presence of the two howitzers is less easy to explain. They could have been brought from India with General Roberts’ 'Kabul Field Force’ in 1879 and left behind because they were damaged and unusable. More likely they were purchased by the Afghan government in the 1850s or 1860s when factories would often sell weapons without British government approval and when other powers (such as Russia, Prussia or Persia) or private arms suppliers would willingly supply weapons. During the Great Game between Britain and Russia for influence in Afghanistan and for the protection of India’s north western frontier arms smuggling and gun running became rife in Afghanistan.

The Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Thompson (Lady Butler), 1846-1933. 1879. Oil on canvas. 132.1 x 233.7 cm. Courtesy of Tate Britain. Click on image to enlarge it.

Further reading

Buckle, Captain E. Memoir of the Services of the Bengal Artillery: London; WH Allen, 1852.

Datta, Rangan. “Afghan War Memorial, Dum Dum, Kolkata (Calcutta).” Web. 16 March 2016.

Dreadnought: Evolution of the British naval gun.” www.worldnavalships.com Web. 16 March 2016.

Hancox, Elizabeth. “British Guns in Burma.” FIBIS. Web. 16 March 2016.

Macrory, Patrick. Signal Catastrophe. London; Hodder and Stoughton, 1966.

Skaarup, Harold A. Artillery preserved in Quebec City fortifications.. Web. 16 March 2016.

Young, Brigadier General H.A. The East India Company’s Arsenals & Manufactories. London: Naval and Military Press. Reprinted 2009.

Bailey Pegg Company of Stourbridge.” Web. 16 March 2016.

The Brierley Hill iron foundry whose cannons shook the world.” www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk. Web. 16 March 2016.

Carron Company of Falkirk.” /www.gracesguide.co.uk. Web. 16 March 2016.

Walker Iron works of Masburgh.” Rotherham.co.uk. Web. 16 March 2016.

Baluchistan and the First Afghan War. Vol III of Frontier and Overseas Expeditions from India. Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing, 1910. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 16 March 2016.

Last modified 16 March 2016