2008: British Soldiers in Afganistan Discover British Rifles Lost In 1880 Maiwand Massacre

Imagine slogging through the Afghan sands and sun with your fellow military men and women. There are many hidden dangers to come across – and, surprisingly, weapons that you might recognize from your military history books. That’s right; even thousands of miles away from your homeland, there’s a chance that you might stumble upon weapons left behind by your ancestors.

This is what happened a few years ago, in the desert landscape of Afghanistan. British troops stumbled across an unexpected find: their nation’s very own weapons long left abandoned.

128 years after British forces faced crushing defeat at Maiwand in July of 1880, soldiers from the very same nation returned to the site of the conflict and found these long-lost weapons.

The Original Conflict of the 1800s

In July of 1880, the British Empire was in the midst of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The second stage of a two-part effort on the behalf of British-controlled India to invade Afghanistan, this war stretched from 1878 to 1880 and pitted Sher Ali Khan of Afghanistan’s Barakzai dynasty against the all-powerful British monarchy that ruled India and Pakistan during this era.

According to Mark Hawkins, military arms expert and co-owner of England’s The Lanes Armoury, the battle between the British and the Afghani armies was not exactly an easy victory for the famous Empire.

In the 63 years that Queen Victoria reigned over Britain and its colonies, the battle of Maiwand earned a place among the greatest military embarrassments of the empire’s history. Despite its modern and advanced weapons, skilled and trained troops, the British Empire saw itself defeated at Maiwand by 2,500 Afghan men.

After the bloodshed, only two officers and nine soldiers stood alive; about 1,000 fellow men lay fallen on the ground. However, according to the Afghan witnesses who saw this battle conclude in its final moments, the British men refused to surrender. Instead, the eleven men still alive charged at the Afghan forces that surrounded them, leaving their safe places of shelter behind to attempt one final stand against the enemy.

The British men left standing charged the Afghan troops. They quickly fell, as the Afghan men fired at them and ensured they were dead before advancing.

Despite the stunning defeat experienced by the British Empire in 1879, the British proved themselves victorious at the war’s end – at last, peace treaty arrangements were made between the two nations. England was allowed to retain influence in Afghanistan, as the result of the Treaty of Gandamak, and the British and Indian troops remaining in Afghanistan left the country altogether.

At the end of the years-long conflict between the two international powers, the tribes within Afghanistan were allowed once again to rule their nation independently. The British retreated and allowed the Afghans to rule their country, according to their local customs; however, the British Empire retained total control over the nation’s foreign affairs policy.

In the peace treaty that established this arrangement for decades to come, England was permitted to prevent any other international power from dominating Afghanistan or taking control of this important nation by military force. With the Russian Empire hovering nearby, this treaty ensured that England would keep Russia at bay, and prevent the also powerful nation from encroaching on their Indian territories.

Centuries Later, The British Revisit Their Loss

The battle, and defeat, that occurred at Maiwand so many years ago was once again brought to the forefront of history when British soldiers stumbled upon ancient Victorian-era weapons – the very guns used in battle by their forerunners in the British Army of 1880.

According to Peter Smithurst, the senior curator of historic firearms at the Royal Armouries Museum, the weapons with which soldiers of the British Empire fought were impressive. Today, the guns used during the battle of Maiwand are considered classics within the circles of weapons collectors and historians.

In fact, the Martini-Henry guns used at the battle of Maiwand were the first purpose-made breech-loading rifles used by the British military – and they quickly became iconic weapons.

Unfortunately, the first Martini-Henry rifles were used in battle at the crushing defeat at Maiwand in the summer of 1880. Once thought lost to history, and to the days of war, it came as an incredible surprise when British troops uncovered a buried stash of those Victorian rifles.

As soldiers worked their way through Afghanistan in pursuit of the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, they stumbled upon a hidden stash of Martini-Henry rifles in the country’s Helmand province. Upon their discovery, the soldiers sent the guns back home to England. However, once back in their homeland, the weapons were reclassified as expensive antiques.

In the months after the discovery, they saw great popularity with collectors of firearms and war weapons. The Martini-Henry was already an item collectors clamoured over, thanks to its significant role in the development and progress of firearms. It saw action – and success – on battlefields during the height of the British Empire’s golden era and was used in many colonial conflicts around the world.

Because of this, it’s no surprise that the uncovered rifles from Afghanistan set off quite a craze among collectors. In fact, two of those rifles were put up for sale in an antique shop located in Sussex; each sold for £1,100 (about $1,500 in U.S. currency).

Will More Weapons Be Found?

The discovery of so many hidden weapons, lying beneath the soil of Afghanistan, brings up a new question: are there other valuable and historically significant weapons hiding elsewhere in the country, or in other places around the world? The answer is quite possibly a “yes”, according to Smithurst.

Ever since British, American, and other nations’ military forces have re-entered Afghanistan, there have been opportunities to uncover rifles and similar antiques from the past. As Smithurst points out, many different countries have fought in or occupied Afghanistan, bringing with them weapons from as recent as the 1990s, or as distant as the 1800s – so who knows what other weapons could be found there.

Perhaps, in the years to come, even more exciting military finds from other armies will be uncovered, and returned home.


Heather Fishel

Heather Fishel is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE