The first two British wars in Afghanistan (1838-42 and 1878-80) are even today still very present in the public consciousness. Commentators, looking forward to this year’s coalition withdrawal from Afghanistan still talk darkly of the disastrous British retreat from Kabul in 1842, and Afghans still remember with pride their trouncing of the British at the Battle of Maiwand near Kandahar in 1880.
Yet, despite this awareness of the two campaigns and the continuing relevance of them to the current situation, it is curious that in Britain there are few physical memorials to them. Aside from the Maiwand Lion in the Forbury Gardens in Reading which commemorates the terrible losses suffered by the Berkshire Regiment in the battle, there is not much more to be found than a discrete scattering of plaques and inscriptions.
Nevertheless, there is one grand monument dedicated to those of the occupying armies who fell in the first two Afghan Wars. However, it stands not in Britain but in India. The Church of St John the Evangelist, which is located in the Naval cantonment (Navy Nagar) in Colaba, South Mumbai, is better known as the Afghan Church. In the aftermath of the First Afghan War in 1843, the East India Company commissioned the church to be built as a memorial to those of the British and Company Armies who died in the war in Afghanistan. The work was begun in 1847 and the church was consecrated in 1858, although the 60-metre high bell tower was not completed until 1865.
As architecture, the church is particularly significant as a trailblazer for the Gothic style which is the hallmark of South Bombay in buildings such as the Victoria Railway Terminus and the High Court. It is a collaboration between Henry Conybeare and the architect of Keble College William Butterfield, who provided much of the interior decoration such as the reredos, the floor tiling and the memorials for the first Afghan War.
Whilst one might appreciate the austere grandeur of the church, it is the memorials to the two Afghan Wars which really seize the attention. Needless to say, they are focused on the western officers who fell on the campaigns and there is little acknowledgement of the mass of Indian soldiers or Afghans who perished (though the Afghans do have a monument in Kabul to the Victory of Maiwand). Nevertheless, to see the array of even just these names brings the historic conflicts much closer to home.
Behind each of the names is a story – I have picked out one from the plaque below to retell here:
Captain John Woodburn of the 44th Bombay Native Infantry had distinguished himself fighting against insurgents during 1841. During this time, he had been based in Kandahar, and was involved in a notable action to contain rebels around Gereskh: on July 3rd, his force of infantry confronted a force of 6000 men under a dissenting chief, Aktar Khan, and although outnumbered by the rebels he was able to put them to flight after a pitched battle on the banks of the Helmand River. The fact that such actions were necessary was a sign of Afghanistan’s essential instability under occupation. As the situation deteriorated towards the end of the year, Woodburn was detailed to march with a small detachment of 130 men from Kandahar to Kabul. On 2nd November the small column fell into difficulty outside the city of Ghazni. Sir John Kaye, the great historian of the First Afghan War, takes up the account:
“[Outside Ghazni] they were attacked by swarms of Afghans, through whom, with consummate gallantry and skill, Woodburn fought his way to the little fort of Syedabad. The place was occupied by a man supposed to be friendly to us; and the English officer, surrounded as he was by the enemy, gladly accepted his offer of protection. But there was no safety within the fort. For a day and a night he held his position against a besieging enemy, and nobly he defended himself. But his ammunition fell short; and then there came tidings of the success of the insurgents at Caubul. On this, the chief admitted parties of the enemy into the towers of his own Harem, which overlooked the court-yard, in which the Sepoys were quartered. Then the massacre commenced. Many of the Sepoys were killed on the spot. Others threw themselves over the walls, and were shot down outside the fort. Woodburn himself, with a few of his men, took post in a tower of their own court, and for some hours they gallantly defended themselves. But they fell at last. The enemy burnt them out; and massacred them almost to a man.”
The church also possesses some of the colours – much decayed – which were carried by various regiments in the Second Afghan War.
The colours hang in glass cases under the tower:
The church is a cool and welcome retreat from the chaos of contemporary Mumbai. However, there is an unfortunate air of obscurity about the place. The stonework of the sanctuary is crumbling, and a fine dust of chipped limestone covers parts of the brightly-tiled floor. The regular congregation, I understand, is in the region of 25. The caretaker proudly showed me a photograph of the Prince of Wales visiting the Church last year. However, given the historic importance of the Church and its continuing relevance with 12 years of a modern British presence in Afghanistan, it would be fitting for the Church to be better known and better connected with Britain. Such memorials should be as visible as possible, calling us to think carefully about the question of foreign intervention and its price.