[ 12 October 1879 ]

On this day in 1879 General Roberts led a British army into Kabul, declaring martial law and offering substantial financial rewards for the handing over of all those who were known to have taken up arms against the British. Those deemed “guilty” of resistance were then promptly hung from a public gallows. The Freeman’s Journal recounted how “Roberts celebrated the capture of Cabul by hanging scores of Cabulese,” noting that he sent them to the gallows “with a lightness of heart that Robespierre would have envied,”(1)  while the Manchester Weekly Times reported how “the work of the gallows went on busily through the last week of October and the beginning of November.”(2)  However, some elements of the British press considered the scale of the executions overly punitive.

“Men have been hung in Cabul,” the Sunderland Echo informed its readers, “for the offence of fighting for their country and preachers for inciting people to oppose an invader. Does not a blush rise on the cheeks of our readers.”(3)

Predictably other newspapers strongly disagreed.

“Our mission of vengeance,” the Manchester Courier asserted, “would be very lamely fulfilled if we spared them… What can be done with cowards who run away from our soldiers except to hang them when they are caught… The feeling in camp is rather that too much leniency has been shown.”(4)

The correspondent of the London Daily News concurred

“It was necessary that a severe example should be made to overawe a race which shows no quarter when successful and always repays leniency by further treachery.”(5)

The Earl of Lytton must have been delighted by Roberts dedication to his punitive mission, having written to the general earlier to emphasize the importance of using the most brutal methods which would be practically and politically possible.

“Every scoundrel brought to death I shall regard as one scoundrel the less in a nest of scoundrelism… It is not justice in the ordinary sense, but retribution that you have to administer on reaching Kabul… Your object should be to strike terror and strike it quickly and deeply.” (6) ]

The British invasion of the country was ruthless in almost every aspect of its execution, as at least one British newspaper editorial readily admitted

“When we were attacked by armed men we not only repelled them, but burned their villages, scattered their stores of food, and left their women and children to perish in the mountains.”(7)

Naturally, when he died in 1914,  the general was accorded a state funeral and his corpse accordingly buried in St. Pauls’ Cathedral. He was also given the honour of being one of only two non-royals in the twentieth century who’s bodies were laid in state at Westminster Hall (the other being Winston Churchill).  A few years later, a fine bronze statue of him was erected in front of Horse Guards Parade, which still stands today – his shocking war crimes in Afghanistan completely expunged from official memory.



  1. Lead editorial, The Freeman’s Journal, 16 December 1879. p5 and Lead editorial, The Freeman’s Journal, 17 December 1879, p5
  2. “At Cabul,” The Manchester Weekly Times, 20 December 1879, p5.
  3. “The Situation in Afghanistan,”  The Sunderland Daily Echo, 16 December 1879 p2
  4. “The Occupation of Cabul,” The Manchester Courier, 3 December 1879, p6
  5. “The Army at Cabul,” The London Daily News, 15 December 1879, p5
  6. Martin Ewins (2005) “Conflict in Afghanistan: Studies in Asymetric Warfare,” Routledge, London, p60
  7. “The Situation in Afghanistan,” Ibid, p2.

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