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Penjdeh Incident - 1885

"The Great Game" marked a strategic conflict between the British and Russian Empires for supremacy in Central Asia, which with the Panjdeh Incident came close to triggering full-scale armed conflict. Russian troops, possibly in violation of their orders, waged a fierce battle that severely defeated the Afghans. War seemed likely between Britain and Russia, but William Gladstone resisted this militaristic sentiment. Gladstone (1809-1898) was at the end of his second premiership by this stage, which marked the return of a conservative government. Granville George Leveson Gower (1815-1891) was the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

War seemed inevitable to both London and St Petersburg, when it was learned that Russian troops had occupied Penjdeh on after driving out a body of Afghan troops. After confronting each other on the Khusk River for some weeks a large Russian force under General Komaroff attacked on 30 March 1885 the Afghan troops at Penjdeh, and after a gallant resistance on the part of the native garrison it was utterly routed and the town occupied by the victors. The Russian casualties were inconsiderable, but the Afghans lost nearly 1,000 men.

It is not necessary to enter closely into the question as to whether the province of Badghis and the important positions of Zulfikar, Ak-Robat, and Penjdeh are, or are not, Afghan territory. The highest authorities, Vambery, Rawlinson, and Malleson, asserted positively that they were Afghan. They had been for hundreds of years subject to or dependent upon Herat. Penjdeh is an Herati name, and Penjdeh and the Robat Pass are important positions for the defence of Herat. They were all marked within the Afghan boundary on the Russian staff maps up to 1882.

The Russian interest in this big slice of territory is obvious. It is so much nearer to Herat and India. It includes land of immense fertility. It embraces the salt lakes of Er-Oilan, upon which all the surrounding populations, Afghan and Persian, as well as Turcoman, depend. It enables her to enclose the rich Persian province of Khorassan, and prepare for its ultimate annexation. It gave the Russian army a splendid base for preparation and future operations, close to Herat, and at the gates of India. In seizing the junction of the rivers Kushk and Murghab at Penjdeh the Russians not only deprived the defenders of Afghanistan of a position of great value both tactically and strategically, but also secured for themselves the principal road to Herat, which lies along the Kushk valley to an easy pass leading into the valley of the Heri Rud at Kushan.

The joint Boundary Commission, accepted by both Russia and England to determine the Russo-Afghan frontier, had not begun its work before rumors of a serious misunderstanding were circulated. Sir Peter Lumsden and his escort had started for the proposed meeting-place before winter set in, but the Russian commissioner, from sickness or from some other cause, failed to appear. The Afghans, emboldened by the presence of the British, pushed forward their troops to a spot where, as the Russians alleged, they threatened the Russian outposts.

The situation becoming daily more critical, M. Lessar was despatched from St. Petersburg to London to open up negotiations there as to the principles upon which the new frontier line should be drawn; the Russians agreeing to the principle that the line to be drawn should be a defensive one for the Afghans, so far as regarded the road to Herat, but that it should not be an offensive one as against Sarakhs. The line proposed by Russia was not the strategic one suggested by the mountain lines, but one which included certain pastures and salt-beds, which the Turcomans, on the Russian side of the frontier, declared to be absolutely necessary for their flocks and herds.

Early in February 1885 a party of Cossacks, 100 strong, threatened to attack the Afghans at Sari-Yazi, and then pushed past it and occupied Aimak Jar, which is some three miles farther to the south. By this sudden movement the Russians deliberately crossed the line which Alikhanoff himself had acknowledged to be the true boundary between the Panjdeh and Yulatan districts. The British Commissioner was most anxious to prevent any collision, and he therefore told the Afghans to withdraw their troops from Sari-Yazi to some point to the south of Aimak Jar, but advised them to inform the Eussians that any further movement towards Panjdeh would be resisted by force.

Information reached Britain (Feb. 21) that the Russians were advancing upon Penjdeh, a place held in force by the Afghans. The danger of a collision between the outposts of the two armies seemed so inevitable, that Sir P. Lumsden at once withdrew from the spot, leaving only a couple of officers to report to him the progress of events. Questioned as to the state of affairs, the Ministers declined, on the ground of public policy, to give any information beyond admitting that an interview between the Ameer of Afghanistan and the Viceroy of India had been arranged.

The misunderstanding with Russia arising out of the Penjdeh incident assumed each week greater importance. The position of affairs was described by Earl Granville (March 3) as follows: "The Russian Government, in reply to a remonstrance from her Majesty's Government, declined on Feb. 24 to withdraw from their advanced posts at Sari-yazi and the Zulfikar Pass, but gave assurances that their officers had been ordered carefully to avoid conflicts with the Afghans, and that complications were only to be feared in the event of the Afghans attacking the Russian posts." The Russian Government pledged themselves not to advance their troops, and the English Government pledged themselves not to sanction the advance of Afghan troops.

The Russians no longer attempted to conceal their intention to seize all the most important points on the principal avenues leading to Herat. On March 16 a party of Eussians even tried to push past the Afghan intrenchments at Ak-Tepe. As soon as it became known that the Russians had commenced a fresh movement toward Herat, the British Foreign Office made a strong representation to the Russian Government, pointing out the disastrous consequences which would inevitably result from such continued advances.

A few days later (March 24) a hastily summoned meeting of the Cabinet was held in the Premier's room at the House of Commons, and the warlike preparations forthwith took larger proportions. Two army corps, of 25,000 men each, were ordered to be mobilised in India; and large quantities of supplies were ordered to be sent to the north. Scindiah, Holkar, and the Nizam gave proof of a generous rivalry in placing their military resources at the disposition of the Viceroy. In England ships were ordered to be got ready at once, and arsenals and dockyards showed unusual activity. To crown all, Lord Kimberley in the House of Lords and Lord Hartington in the Commons suddenly (March 26) brought down a message from the Queen announcing that " a time of emergency had arrived," and stating her intention to call out the first-class army reserves and militia reserves for service under the flag. The numbers available under this demand were about 40,000 of the former and 30,000 of the latter category. Orders were also issued to man the ships of the First Steam Reserve ready for sea; and other steps were taken which showed that the Government were preparing for any possible untoward solution of the negotiations.

At the end of February 1884 the Russian seizure of Merv was an accomplished fact, although in 1882 Russia had renewed her declaration that she had no intention of attacking that place. Merv having been seized, Lord Granville wrote on the last day of February 1884 asking what the Russian Government proposed to do now that it was in actual contact with the frontiers of Afghanistan. There was no disclaimer of the assumption that at Merv Russia was in such contact; and on March 26 a Russian staff map, placing the boundary of Afghanistan south of Penjdeh, was explicitly repudiated by M. de Giers. A month later Lord Granville wrote saying that Her Majesty's Government accepted the Russian proposal of 1882, repeated by M. de Giers, for the delimitation of the frontier from Khoja Saleh westwards. It was moreover admitted that the proposal of 1882, made by the Russians themselves and accepted by Lord Granville, was a proposal to delimit a frontier from Sarakhs to Khoja Saleh. Thus, in 1882 and again in 1884, Russia herself proposed a frontier lying far north of Penjdeh, of Pul-i-Khatun, of Sari-Yazi, and of all the other places in what was now mistakenly called the debatable ground.

M. Lessar went to inspect the country on behalf of the Russian Government. On March 24, 1884, he was at Pul-i-Khisti, and tried to get into Penjdeh. The inhabitants refused him admission, and on being asked for their reasons replied that they were "the subjects of Ameer Abdurrahman." A month later Lord Granville remonstrated against the despatch of Russian agents to Penjdeh and Maimena, within Afghan territory. On April 27 M. de Giers denied that these agents had any authority, and declared that "no project of annexation is to be attributed to their movements." In April the Russian Foreign Office repudiated M. Lessar, the suspicions aroused by his visit were lulled, and six monthslater (Nov.) Sir P. Lumsden was told by Gen. Alikhanoff that "Sari-Yazi is the boundary between Penjdeh and Yulatan." The visit of M. Lessar alarmed the Penjdeh people, and they applied to the Afghan commander at Bala-Murghab for protection, which they received on June 16, and it was a week later that the Russian Government for the first time raised any doubt as to Penjdeh being Afghan territory.

The Ameer did not at that time know that a Commission was contemplated; for it was not nntil two months and a half later that it was finally settled and confirmed by the appointment of the Commissioners. The basis of negotiation was the proposal to delimit a boundary from Sarakhs to Khoja Saleh. When the Ameer's troops entered Penjdeh there was no dispute, there never had been any; on the contrary, not only Penjdeh, but the country as far north as Sarakhs and Khoja Saleh was admitted to be Afghan, by the Russians in re-proposing, and by Lord Granville in accepting, the line between these places as the one to be marked out and definitely settled.

This view that Penjdeh was a portion of Afghanistan was almost unanimously accepted by the English press. The most noteworthy exception was the Pall Mall Gazette, which, throughout the critical period of the dispute took up a wholly independent line, and one so strongly in opposition to the English Government that the most reckless assertions of its being an organ of the Russian Government were sedulously circulated.

The news of the rout of the Afghan forces on the borders of the Kushk river, on reaching Britain on 08 April, rudely dispelled the hopes of those who believed that through the mediation of Germany or otherwise a speedy settlement might be reached. The Stock Exchange gave way to a complete panic. Consols fell nearly three per cent., Russian stocks nine per cent., and other securities in like proportion, and throughout the early part of the day a conviction prevailed that war was inevitable.

Mr. Gladstone said that Her Majesty's Government had been informed by a despatch from Sir Peter Lumsden (dated March 29) that, in spite of the Russian assurances of March 17, General Komaroff denied he had any orders not to advance, and that he had refused to give any assurances to that effect. "Every endeavour," he went on to say, "was being made by the Russians to induce the Afghans to begin the fight, and the Russian troops had attempted finally to pass through the Afghan pickets." In a second despatch on the following day he telegraphed that the Russians had on that day (March 30) attacked and defeated the Afghans, and had occupied Penjdeh. Mr. Gladstone further stated that the Russian Government had informed our Ambassador in St. Petersburg that they hoped that "the regrettable incident would not interrupt negotiations," but pending further explanations he added, "The House will not be surprised when I say, speaking with measured words in circumstances of great gravity, that to us, upon the statements I have recited, this attack bears the appearance of an unprovoked aggression."

Nevertheless war preparations were rapidly pushed forward both in this country and in India. Fast cruisers, selected from amongst the finest ships of the merchant service, especially of the Trans-Atlantic lines, were chartered by the Government, to be armed with one or two heavy guns, either to attack convoys or to harass the enemy's trade. The troops which had been sent to Egypt for operations in the Soudan were stopped at Suakin or elsewhere on the main road to India, and orders for the rapid supply of arms and ammunition were issued to all the arsenals and military factories. The question had obviously entered upon a dangerous phase. It was no longer one of debatable frontiers, but of national honor; and it was not surprising to find the Ministry of Mr. Gladstone borne along, in spite of itself, and in spite of the well-known sympathies of its chief, on a road which had no other issue but the battlefield.

In the presence of the dangers which seemed to threaten the peace of the world, all other questions dropped into insignificance. As time went on and no satisfactory explanations were received from St. Petersburg alarm deepened; the plea for arbitration put forth in the first instance by Air. R. B. Brett met with but slight response from public opinion, which was steadily drifting towards war; and nothing short of a disavowal of General KomarofFs action seemed likely to smooth the path to a pacific settlement. The Government, however, showed itself for the moment in advance of popular opinion, and allowed it to transpire that it might be prepared to submit for arbitration the question whether General Koniaroff should or should not be disavowed.

An official statement was made by Mr. Gladstone on May 4. "The British Government agree," he said, "with the Government of Russia, that they do not desire to see gallant officers on either side put upon their trial. For this purpose they are ready to refer to the judgment of the sovereign of a friendly State any difference which may be found to exist in regard to the interpretation of the agreement between the two Cabinets of March 16, with a view to the settlement of the matter in a mode consistent with the honour of both States. The two Governments are prepared, under these circumstances, to resume at once their communications in London on the main points of the line for the delimitation of the Afghan frontier—the details of the line to be examined and traced upon the spot. I may also say, on another point of interest, that the Russian Government have expressed their willingness to consider the question as to the removal of the Russian outposts when the Commissioners meet."

The satisfaction, however, which this announcement might have otherwise given was somewhat disturbed when it transpired that pending the arbitration Russia was to hold the territories in dispute, of which General Komaroff had violently taken possession. The change of feeling which came over the House of Commons, though not at first widespread, was strongly marked, and of those who dissented from the Ministerial policy of "surrender" cloaked under the name of arbitration Lord R. Churchill constituted himself the spokesman. His argument, however, was mainly based upon the danger to India which underlay any surrender to Russia. Lord Randolph Churchill spoke bitterly, declaring that the people of India had pledged their loyalty to a Government "which is resolved to betray them.... These Ministers, who are really not Ministers—they are not statesmen, they are simply electioneering agents, and electioneering agents of a very low order..." These Ministers, said Lord Randolph, trifle away the interests of the nation to get the Nonconformist vote.

Without any Afghan say in the matter, between 1885 and 1888 the Joint Anglo-Russian Boundary Commission agreed that the Russians would relinquish the farthest territory captured in their advance, but retain Panjdeh. Through negotiations they came to an agreement, which delineated a permanent northern Afghan frontier at the Amu Darya, where Russia kept the Merv Oasis, but relinquished further territories taken in their advance, and promised to respect Afghan territorial integrity in the future; there was a considerable amount of territory lost, especially around Panjdeh.

Gladstone, "the People's William" was a classical liberal, searching for ways to avoid conflict, and his foreign policy was not accepted by all. Sir Peter Lumsden (1829-1918) was a British military officer who was serving as Chief of Staff to the commander-in-chief during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. In 1884 he returned to the North-West frontier, and was selected as British representative on the Anglo-Russian Commission for the demarcation of the north-west boundary of Afghanistan; he resigned and returned to England after the Panjdeh Incident, due to his inability to agree with the policy of the Home Government.

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Page last modified: 03-08-2012 19:22:48 ZULU