The most poignant reminder of Britain’s Imperial folly in Afghanistan can be found in the Church of St John The Evangelist, situated inside the Military Cantonment, in Colaba in Mumbai. It is more popularly known as the Afghan Church.
Britain has always remembered its great military disasters in art and words, and the beautiful Afghan Church in Colaba is a typical example. In 1808, a British Army went into Spain to help their Spanish allies fight an invasion lead by Napoleon of France. Sir John Moore commanded the British Expeditionary Forces. The Spanish were a ragtag army who were no match for the highly experienced French, boosted by victories at Austerlitz and Eylau. Midway through the British advance into Spain, the French completed their demolition of the Spanish Army and went after the British. Realising that he was outgunned and outmanned, Sir John decided to retreat some 400 kilometres through mountainous terrain towards the port of Corunna, which is right at the north western tip of the Iberian Peninsula, to rendezvous with the Royal Navy.
They were chased and harried by the French. It was winter and conditions were terrible. Wherever possible, the British Army stood and fought and in two cases scored remarkable victories over the French. But mostly, the lack of food and hence the drop in morale reduced the disciplined army into a mob. Wherever possible, wounded were left behind, as the skilled French Army pressed them hard.
They finally reached the port of Corunna, surrounded on all sides, on January 11 1809. There was no Royal Navy there yet. Sir John decided to stand and fight. The battle commenced – it was fierce with no quarter given. On 16th January Moore was hit by a cannonball that took off his left shoulder all the way to his neck. He lay mortally wounded and handed over command.
On 17th January, the French paused the assault, not having been able to penetrate British lines guarding access to the port. Hundreds of British troops lay dead and wounded. That night, with the second commander also having been killed, the British fought a rearguard and kept up a pretense of staying at their posts while the bulk of their forces silently withdrew to waiting ships from the Royal Navy. The wounded and sick were left behind. The next day the French discovered the deception and opened fire from the surrounding hills on the Navy transports. Four of them were sunk. Returning fire from Navy frigates allowed the transports to leave. The French then overran the port.
It was a humiliating retreat, but one that the British celebrated for the pluck and bravery with which they withstood fierce fighting to keep the port in British hands until the Royal Navy got there. A retreat very similar to the more famous one at Dunkirk in 1940, which allowed the bulk of the professional British Army to escape across the Channel to regroup and rebuild. That was also a military disaster which has since been celebrated in art and cinema.
The Afghan Church was built to mark the British Retreat from Kabul in 1843. The Afghan invasion was officered and lead by the British Indian Army (though they were not called that) from the Presidencies and the regular British Army. The Bengal Presidency contributed Skinner’s Horse, the Forty-third Native Infantry and the Second Light Cavalry, The Bombay Presidency contributed the Nineteenth Native Infantry and the Poona Local Horse. Maharana Ranjit Singh offered to contribute troops from the legendary Dal Khalsa but later declined, preferring to wait and watch what happens. The ensuing disaster was inevitable – the hubris and arrogance of local British commanders, and the prurience of the British Resident who brazenly took to partaking of the feminine delights of local Afghan women – all contributed to the disaster, which Dalrymple and (earlier) Jan Morris have described so well.
The romantic return of Dr Brydon is well known – he furiously urged his tired horse to gallop towards the gates of Jalalabad, chased by baying Afghan horsemen. When they were gaining on him, the first ranging shots from the fort’s walls started to sound. They chased him until they were just short of rifle range from the Fort, and miraculously hung back, watching Dr Brydon reach the gates. His horse collapsed and died.
What is not celebrated or well known is that for years after, sepoys would show up at Khyber Pass, having been freed from some Afghan dungeon, maimed and reduced to bones.
The retreat was marked by the same mawkish art that hid the disaster and the shameful collapse of an entire army. Nevertheless, since the Company Armies had taken the brunt of the casualties, the Bombay Presidency decided to erect this church. It was designed by Henry Conybeare, who among other things, also built much of Bombay’s water supply systems and some of the Great Peninsular Railway.
Consecrated in 1853, the Church stands in a quiet corner of the Cantonment, shaded by trees, and blessed by peace and quiet. Inside, the Church’s walls are lined with the regimental colours of all the regiments that were destroyed in the retreat. They are torn and tattered due to bullets of the jezail and the swords of the Afghans. Just the rustling of bats in the roof timbers disturb the peace. The pews still have the slots to enable soldiers to have their rifles to hand in case of emergency. These “rifle pews” were brought in after the 1857 Mutiny which began in Meerut when the garrison was attending evening service unarmed.
War is a terrible business. People die in the most undignified of circumstances, screaming with pain and dying of thirst. We add solemity to the sacrifice by giving them the honour they deserve. Regardless of the merits of the first Afghan War – or indeed any war – the Church is a beautiful memorial to all soldiers who die in battle, and is a reminder of the folly that causes men to go to War.
Do visit it when you get the chance.