1860-1899 | Afghanistan | Executions

Mass executions to ‘celebrate’ the British capture of Kabul

The ennobled executioner Earl Roberts of Kandahar in 1904 (Oil painting by John Sargent – NAM) and the bronze statue at Horse Guards Parade (Kim – CC License – via Wikimedia.)

12 October 1879

On 12 October 1879, Lieutenant General Frederick Roberts led a British army into Kabul, declaring martial law and offering financial rewards for the handing over of anyone known to have taken up arms against the Empire.  According to the Freeman’s Journal, he ‘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 Similarly, the Manchester Weekly Times reported that ‘the work of the gallows went on busily through the last week of October and the beginning of November.’2 

There was the occasional expression of dissent. ‘Men have been hung in Cabul,’  observed the Sunderland Echo, ‘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 However, most newspapers took a less merciful stance.  “Our mission of vengeance,” the Manchester Courier explained, “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 Earl of Lytton, the Viceroy of India, would have concurred. Earlier he had written to Roberts advising him that ‘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.’ 5Accordingly, the British invasion 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.”6

When the ennobled conqueror, Earl Roberts, died in 1914,  he was given a state funeral and buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral. He was also accorded 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. p. 5 and Lead editorial, The Freeman’s Journal, 17 December 1879, p. 5.
  2. ‘At Cabul,’ The Manchester Weekly Times, 20 December 1879, p. 5.
  3. ‘The Situation in Afghanistan,’  The Sunderland Daily Echo, 16 December 1879 p. 2.
  4. ‘The Occupation of Cabul,’ The Manchester Courier, 3 December 1879, p. 6.
  5. Martin Ewins, Conflict in Afghanistan: Studies in Asymetric Warfare, Routledge, London, 2005, p. 60.
  6. ‘The Situation in Afghanistan,’ The Sunderland Daily Echo, 16 December 1879, p. 2.

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