The R.A.F. bomb the medieval Afghan city of Jalalabad causing huge fires
20 May 1919
On 20 May 1919, R.A.F. aircraft of Number 31 squadron dropped more than a hundred bombs on the Afghan city of Jalalabad. A reminder to its population that continued refusal to accept British hegemony would have a terrifying cost. Afghanistan was then in its third week of a war, an attempt to pressure Britain into cancelling the treaty of Gandamak of 1879, imposed during the Second Afghan War, which had effectively given London control over the nation’s foreign policy.
Jalalabad’s medieval streets were made of wood and plaster houses and they were soon engulfed in flames, sending a huge column of black smoke into the sky. An ‘excellent effect’ exclaimed one British newspaper.1 Barry Renfrew, writing in Wings of Empire: The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force, describes how ‘terrified people jammed the narrow alleys, frantically pushing and shoving as they tried to escape the fires that enveloped the tinder-dry homes and other buildings.’2 He also adds that ‘Jalalabad, like other Afghan towns, had virtually no way to cope with fires and casualties, and was completely defenceless against air attack.’ That was well understood by British commanders, and Renfrew notes that, within days of the bombing, and with the aim of spreading terror among the Afghan population, ‘leaflets luridly describing the bombing of Jalalabad were scattered on towns and villages across the south of the country.’3
The city was also targeted again four days later when the fires generated by the bombing were so large that they could be seen on India’s North West Frontier, fifty miles away. Even after that, there was no respite for the remainder of the month, with a ton of bombs dropped almost every day.4 A large number of civilians were killed and wounded, and many others forced to flee in to the surrounding countryside. There were no published estimates as to the number of fatalities, although there was a brief mention in some British newspapers of refugees returning to the city in June after the raids ceased.5
On 4 May, Lieutenant Commander Joseph Kenworthy, the newly elected Liberal MP for Kingston Upon Hull Central, raised the issue of avoiding civilian casualties in bombing operations over Afghan towns in parliament. Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state for India, responded by appealing for unquestioning patriotism, declaring that ‘the well known conduct of the British army and of all His Majesty’s armies in this connection needs no explanation, and makes it unnecessary to give any assurance.’ This was greeted with much cheering by honourable members.6
- ‘British Raids: Large Number of the Enemy Killed,’ The Aberdeen Daily Journal, 23 May 1919, p. 5
- Barry Renfrew, Wings of Empire: The Forgotten Wars of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1939, The History Press, 2018, p. 37 but see also Royal Air Force Museum, ‘British military aviation in 1919,’ which states that the first raid was earlier on 17 May at url https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/history-of-aviation-timeline/interactive-aviation-timeline/british-military-aviation/1919.aspx
- Ibid., p. 39
- ‘Parties Return on Stoppage of Air Raids,’ The Globe, 11 June 1919, p. 3, ‘Punitive Measures Against Offending Villages,’ The (Sheffield) Yorkshire Telegraph and Star, 11 June 1919, p. 4 and ‘The Afghan Trouble,’ The Derby Daily Telegraph, 11 June 1919, p. 3
- Debate in parliament cited in ‘No Baby Killing Raids in Afghanistan,’ The Dundee Evening Telegraph, 4 June 1919, p. 6. The cheering is mentioned in ‘Bombs on Afghans,’ The Nottingham Journal, 5 June 1919, p. 1.
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