Australians at War in Afghanistan

The current deployment in Afghanistan of our Special Air Service forces in the war against terrorism is not the first time Australians have fought on "The Savage Frontier". Hobart based historian and contributing writer Brendon Bowes reports on the experiences of Cyril Cameron, a Tasmanian in Afghanistan 122 years ago.

Brooding and resentful of their defeat and humiliation by British imperialists, tribesmen all over Afghanistan were fired by Mullah's call for a Jihad (holy war) against infidel invaders in 1880. As an army of hungry, exhausted British and Indian troops hobbled forward on blistered feet, a 22 year old cavalry lieutenant from Tasmania recorded in his diaries their suffering during the famous march to relieve Kandahar.

For Cyril St Clair Cameron, a grazier's son from Fordon, near Evandale, fighting Queen Victoria's enemies beyond the Khyber Pass was a grand adventure during the Empire's heyday. Later renowned as a military and political leader and landowner, Cameron was born in 1857 and educated at Church Grammar School, Launceston, Hobart High School, and Edinburgh University. Appointed Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal South Down Militia, in 1877 he volunteered for active service in Afghanistan as second Lieutenant in the 9th (Queens Royal) Lancers. At the outbreak of war in 1879 he took a draft of 52 men and 170 horses to Kabul. Two diaries recording his fascinating service in India and Afghanistan are preserved in the Military Museum at Hobart's Anglesea Barracks.

Before Cameron's arrival in Kabul the mutinous Afghan army had deposed Yakuob Khan, regarded as pro-British. The question of who might be safely installed as ruler without plunging the country in anarchy was unresolved, and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan was increasingly unacceptable. There was the danger of an Afghan ruler turning his kingdom against British India's northern frontier with the help of Russia. The only candidate strong enough to fulfil British expectations was Abdur Rahman, grandson of a former Emir, Dost Muhammed.

To complete the smooth transition of power Cameron was seconded as a political officer and initiated into the shadowy world of Kabul politics. The slightest mistake could be misconstrued as an insult by Rahman's supporters, with negotiations broken off and British officers murdered.

"We were indeed on the top of a volcano, which might have burst out at any moment", wrote Cameron, "for we were a mere handful against the numbers that were close at hand ready to fall on us should the Emir give any sign".

Cameron noted the Emir would not meet the senior officer, General Stewart, as it would have lowered his dignity in the eyes of his followers to speak directly with the British. He also cynically recorded the conclusion of negotiations; "Everything was accurately arranged, Abdur Rahman having been heavily subsidised to takeover the Kingdom from us".

On July, 27, 1880, the day Rahman accepted the throne, news came that a rebel army led by fanatically anti-British Ayoub Khan (brother of deposed leader Yakoub) had advanced in the south and defeated British forces at Maiwand. Retreating to Kandahar citadel the garrison made preparations for a lengthy siege as Khan deployed 10,000 men and opened fire with captured guns. Only a swift and decisive blow against the rebels could restore British prestige in India and relieve the beleaguered garrison.

In Kabul, General Sir Frederick Roberts telegraphed Lord Ripon, Governor-General of India.

"I strongly recommend that a force be sent from Kabul to Kandahar", he signalled.

"It is imperative that we should show our strength throughout Afghanistan".

Ahead was a march of 510 km through mountains and desert inhabited by warlike tribes, but on 8th August Roberts set off to relieve Kandahar. Cameron's 9th Lancers were among 10,000 men including native cavalry and infantry, horses, mules and other baggage animals, and thousands of native camp followers. Extending 10 km along the road the column averaged 25 km a day under conditions of strictest discipline across a trackless waste of sand and rock.

"It was certain death", wrote Roberts, "for anyone who strayed from the shelter of the column; Afghans hovered about on the look out for plunder, or to send an unbeliever to eternal perdition".

The thermometer reached 44 C during the day and fell to freezing at night.

"If shadows could have been made saleable", wrote one long suffering staff officer, "they would have fetched any price, even the patch of shade under a horse's girth". After covering 385 km in 17 marches they relieved the garrison of Khelat-i-Ghilzie.

On August 31, Roberts was close enough to Kandahar to send out a reconnaissance-in-force. Highlanders and native cavalry went forward in skirmishing order, opposed by Afghans who were allowed to come within 200 metres then mowed down by heavy rifle fire. Cameron's diaries describe the important part he played in subsequent battles.

"The Afghans, having discovered General Gough's reconnaissance-in-force, made a determined attack through Gundi-Gaun village, endeavouring to cut off his line of retreat".

Gough sent Cameron to order Colonel Mackenzie to withdraw the Bengal Cavalry as quickly as possible before his force was surrounded.

"I went alone, as an escort would have hampered me.

"My shortest route was through walled enclosures already occupied by attacking Afghans whose rifles almost touched me as I rode through them to an open space."

After delivering the order and returning to his own lines, Cameron rode along the firing line, encouraging his men in the desperate fight, "who had a hard time against overwhelming numbers".

Khan's army was entrenched on a mountain ridge, so on September 1st Roberts planned a bold frontal attack to capture the village of Gundi Moolah and outflank the enemy. Fighting among loopholed walls of village enclosures was desperate as Afghans hurled themselves upon British and native infantry, dashing their shields against the bayonets and grappling with the men as they strove to wrench away their muskets. Highlanders and Ghurkhas took the ridge overlooking Khan's camp and the defeated Afghans fled in all directions, leaving behind stores, treasury and cannon. Gough's Cavalry Brigade, led by the 9th Lancers, completed the rout, pursuing the fleeing soldiers.

"In the distance a large body of 2000 of the enemy could be seen attempting to cross the valley", wrote Cameron.

"It was a magnificent sight to see the Squadrons come up into line, and as I was in command of the leading (A) Troop I saw the whole movement.

"Colonel Bushman ordered the "gallop" and then the "charge", upon which the lances were brought to the engage.

"The enemy threw away their arms, fell to the ground and implored for mercy".

British casualties at the Battle of Kandahar were 40 killed and 228 wounded, the enemy lost 1200 men. At the end of October Cameron was stricken with typhoid and not expected to survive. But the plucky Tasmanian recovered and in January 1881 granted six months sick leave at Fordon. In 1894 Cameron returned permanently to Tasmania with his wife.

As Captain of Tasmanian Mounted Infantry he embarked for further overseas service during the Boer War in 1899. In South Africa he was wounded and a POW for three weeks. Returning home a hero he was elected a senator in 1901, serving until 1913. He took part in his third war by landing at Gallipoli on 25th April 1915. Invalided back to Australia he returned to farming at Fordon. He died aged 84 in December 1941.

Tall and slightly stooped, with a typical weather beaten military face, Cameron's ideal was "determinedly and quietly to do his duty".


A history of conflict on the wild north- west frontier of British India.

First Afghan War, 1838

When Afghanistan's ruler Dost Muhammed refused an alliance with the British, a full scale invasion replaced him with a puppet king, Shah Suja. After defeating Afghans at Ghazni fortress, Britain occupied Kabul in August 1839.

Destruction of the British Afghan army, 1841

Everything was quiet for two years following the occupation of Kabul - wives and families joined their husbands and social events took place daily around the almost defenseless camps. Towards the end of 1841 trouble began when tribesmen in outlying districts attacked British forces. Mobs in Kabul rioted, plundering and massacring, and envoy Sir William Macnaghten was murdered by rebel leader Akbar Khan. There appeared no alternative but withdrawal and as snow fell the columns marched out of Kabul on 6th January 1842.

The 690 British infantry, 2840 native infantry, and 970 native cavalry were accompanied by large numbers of women and children, sick and wounded, and a huge crowd of panic stricken camp followers. Looting and slaughtering by rebels began immediately. Afghans lined the steep sides of gorges, firing into the struggling mass below. By January 13 only 20 officers and 45 British soldiers were left. With ammunition exhausted they fought with sword and bayonet until overwhelmed. One officer escaped to Jalalabad, sole survivor of an entire army that had left Kabul one week before.

Second Afghan War, 1878

To counter growing Russian influence in Kabul the British demanded the Emir accept a delegation by General Sir Neville Chamberlain, who was turned back at the Khyber Pass. War was declared by India's Governor-General with Indian troops (Sikhs, Punjabis and Ghurkhas) prominent in capturing strongly held Afghan positions along the pass. Akbar Khan died during the advance on Kabul and his young son Yakoub Khan sued for peace. A treaty placed Afghanistan under British control with complete command of the Khyber Pass and guaranteed against Russian expansion.

Third Afghan war, 1879

In September 1879, after envoy Sir Louis Cavagnari was murdered and Yakoub Khan deposed by mutinous troops, General Sir Frederick Roberts rushed back to Kabul, routing an entire Afghan army. In 1880 Roberts led the relief of Kandahar and defeated another rebel army, a famous victory celebrated with wild enthusiasm throughout the British Empire.