A Letter written by Lieutenant Manus L. O’Donel

66th (Berkshire) Regiment


Annotated by

Richard J Stacpoole-Ryding



This letter was donated to The Rifles (Berkshire & Wiltshire) Museum, Salisbury by Mrs. J.E.J. Blateway the granddaughter of Captain John Quarry of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment.  It is reproduced by kind permission of the Curator of The Rifles (Berkshire & Wiltshire) Museum, Salisbury.

Lieutenant Manus Lewis O’Donel was not present at Maiwand but was with A & E companies of the 66th garrisoned at Khelat-i-Ghilazi from April to August 1880.


This photograph of Lieutenant O’Donel was taken at Parkhurst 1881 where he part of a group of officers photographed commemorating the promotions of Colonel S.G.C. Hogg and Lieutenant Colonel J.T. Ready.



Annotations have been added to assist the reader in understanding the account as O’Donel has written in a vain that assumes that the reader knows what and who he is referring to. The account has been transcribed as originally written.



Kandahar 13th September 1880


The first whispers of the disaster reached us at Kelat[1] on the 2nd August. It was a native runner; and spoke of annihilation, giving circumstantial details. Ayoub[2] was also said to have detached a force to operate against us. Tho’ scarcely able to credit the terrible news of the disaster, we made every preparation for defence, and sent out strong foraging parties through the neighbouring country. But our scepticism of the news was strengthened by finding people more than usually quiet and willing to sell their grain. So passed ten days of doubt and anxiety; our belief that something must be wrong being gradually established by the absence of news from Kandahar, to which we had despatched several messengers. At last on the 12th one of them returned with letters and we learned the whole sad truth so far as our losses were concerned.


I feel pretty clear now as to how the whole thing happened; so I may as well tell you of it here.


On the 26th July, St. John[3] informed Burrows[4], who was encamped with his force at Kushkwi-Ma-Khud[5], that a Ghazi advanced guard of Ayoub’s army had got to Maiwand, some 10 miles to the north.

The next morning Burrows marched off his force, with bands playing, everyone rejoiced at the thought of having to turn the Ghazis out of the Maiwand Fort. He had an effective fighting force numbering about as follows:- E/B. R.H.A. 6 Guns and about 150 men: 6 smooth-bores taken from the Wali’s[6] mutineers, supplied with horses and drivers by the E/B, and worked by trained men of the 66th; 6 companies of the 66th Regt. About 490 men; 1st Bombay Grenadiers N.I[7]. about 500 men; 30th Bombay N.I. (Jacobs Rifles)[8] about 550 men; 3rd Bombay Cavalry[9], about 300 sabres; 3rd Scind Horse[10], minus 1 squad, about 200 sabres – total 1600inf: 500 Cav; & 12 Guns. This included men in hospital about 3p.c.


This force, when nearing the village of Maiwand, about 10. a.m. came upon, not a few hundred Ghazis, but the whole of Ayoub Khan’s Army also on the march, & stretching for miles across the plain – horse and foot – as far as the eye could reach. The bands stopped playing; and the General formed his line of battle – I do not blame him for this. He would have been cursed for a poltroon had he retreated. Besides, I believe he had orders to stop Ayoub at all hazards. It is not for fighting, but for the way he fought, that he should be called to account.[11]


The fight began by 2 guns of the E/B under McLaine[12], dashing away to the left front, and opening fire on Ayoub’s people; though it is said this done without orders, Burrows allowed this move of a subaltern of R.H.A to decide his choice of ground he was to fight on.[13] Instead of recalling McLaine, he followed him, leaving behind, unreconnoitred, a village with gardens, in front of which, ran a deep nullah or watercourse – an admirable defensive position. Advancing a few hundred yards into the open but undulating plain, he halted about 150 yards in rear of another nullah, and then prepared for action – and such preparation as it was! Holding in support, and that only for a short time, nothing but 2 companies of Jacob’s Rifles, he formed the remainder of his infantry into one solitary 2 deep line, with the guns at intervals – 5 companies of the 66th on the right – then the Jacob’s Rifles – and the 1st Grenadiers on the left. Quarry’s[14] company, G, was on baggage guard. The Cavalry was massed in columns in the rear of the left; in a perfectly exposed position. The baggage was hidden from fire as much as possible in the deep nullah[15] which had been left behind. Ayoub kept the mass of his force concealed from view behind some rising ground, while his Cavalry spreading out in clouds on both flanks began gradually to overlap our line. The sketch here may give you some idea of it.[16]


For half an hour the fire from our Artillery was not replied to: then all at once, from five different points 36 Guns – 6 of them breech-loading Armstrongs opened upon our line, and never ceased firing till the end of the battle. Our men were lying down – the marksmen being out a few paces to the front of their companies trying to pick off the enemy’s Gunners – our Guns meanwhile blazed away as fast as they could – but with only 12 against 36 it was an unequal fight. This kind of work lasted until about one o’clock. In the meantime, no sooner had our people become engaged that it became evident that the village, which had been left in rear of our right, was occupied by hostile villagers who opened fire against the back of hour line, and Quarry had to detach half his Company to act against them. This half company was engaged in and near the Gardens the greater part of the day; with the other half Quarry guarded the baggage against the enemy’s Cavalry, who hung in heavy clouds about our left flank, but contented themselves threatening – all this time our Cavalry was sitting idle under a heavy artillery fire, which was knocking over some men and many horses. In fact they were given over to the enemy to be pounded into demoralization. Our Artillery horses were also suffering severely, but in the infantry line very few casualties had occurred.


It was not till half past one o’clock that Ayoub made any move with his infantry. Then there was a great advance along the whole line – swarms of the white-coated Ghazis came on – followed by the regular regiments in red and blue – and to meet them the whole of our infantry was allowed to open fire.


The 66th took to firing volleys by companies, McMath’s[17] Company D, was moved by him a short distance in front of the line, when a fold of the line gave good cover. Among the Ghazis nearly every man seemed to be carrying a standard of some description. At the beginning of their advance they made no rushes, but came quietly on a few paces at a time, then halting they would plant their flags in the ground, fire, and again move on. But when they got nearer and the volleys began to tell upon them, the slaughter of them was terrific: in some places they would seen to fall three deep – and always as they went down those behind would quietly step over them and come on with their gleaming knives. All along our line tremendous fire was kept up. The men soon ran through their seventy rounds and were working on their reserve ammunition.


The smooth-bore battery fired every round with it, retired, replenished, and came into action again. McMath was voiceless from shouting the word of command so he stood apart from his Company and raised his sword as a signal when the volley was to be delivered.


One of Ayoubs regular Regiments came up on the left and exchanged volleys at a few hundred yards with the First Grenadiers, who sustained a roaring fire all the time. An

attempt by the Ghazis to encircle our right was met by throwing  back B[18] and C[19] Companies, which under Cullen and Roberts fired some beautiful volleys, and two Guns, which the enemy rolled up 150 yards to ply the 66th with grape, had several successive gun-detachments swept away by D Company.


So great was the effect of the fire in the front of the line, that at last it seemed as if all the assailants had been cleared off the face of the earth; and Major Blackwood[20] of the Artillery exclaimed to Pierse[21], who commanded our left company, “By Jove! They are all gone.” But they had not. Finding the fire in the front line too intense to advance straight up against it, they great mass of the Ghazis, some of them carried up in rear of the horsemen, had inclined to the right and left, and entering the nullah, which crossed the ground in front of our line, spread themselves along it and concentrated under cover for a rush at our centre. Up to that time, except for Preston, who was wounded while tending the first man hit among the 66th, not an officer had been touched. But when the enemy emerged from the nullah, the only European Officer with the two companies of Jacob’s Rifles, between the Guns and Pierse’s Company, was shot down. Then came the crash.


As the Ghazi’s rushed on, they were still met by the same steady volleys from our men – still by the heavy fire from the Grenadiers – still by (blank space) from the Artillery. But Jacob’s Rifles wavered; and when the enemy were within 50 yards the companies broke and ran – not straight back – but behind the 66th who were still standing firm, as if seeking for safety there.


Rushing wildly along our line and carrying confusion everywhere, they came full against the rear of Cullen’s Company, which was thrown back firing to the right, and broke its formation to pieces.


Into the gap they had left, the Ghazis rushed and captured the two Guns before they could retire, only a few of the Gunners cutting their way out.


The Ghazis were then all around the line both in front and rear, and the remainder of the Native Infantry after attempting to form Square, gave way and fell back in disorder. But the rear rank of  F[22] and H Companies 66th were turned about by word of command, and kept up the fire on both sides, and in the other Companies many of the men did the same of their own accord.


Then from somewhere or other the “Retire” was sounded, but even after that there is evidence that a portion at least of the regiment made a move, not away from, but towards the enemy – However the Col:[23] ordered those about him to retire to the Gardens, and soon the whole regiment followed, in confusion of course, and still mixed up with the infernal Jacob’s Rifles. The smooth-bore battery, again out of ammunition, had retired just before the line broke: and the four remaining guns of E/B fell back past the Gardens[24], in rear of Quarry’s baggage-guard. There remained the Cavalry. At the moment of the smash Burrows ordered Nuttall,[25] the Cavalry brigadier, to charge across the front, but (and I believe Burrows put in his dispatch) Genl. Nuttall found himself unable to comply with this order, the fact being that the men could not be got to obey.[26] Without a blow, the 500 sabres retired rapidly through Quarry’s extended line. As the infantry made for the Gardens, the enemy followed them close, some of the Ghazis pressing round the flank, and reaching the enclosures even before our troops. Then the heavy losses began The Native Infantry had become an unresisting mass, even the 1st Grenadiers who, before the panic spread, had fought so well. Among the Ghazis pressing on their heels one would sometimes be seen to stretch out his arm and drag a Grenadier from the ranks, then with one hand he would knock the man’s turban off, and with other cut him down. The same game when tried on our 66th men, was a single failure, and in the retreat to the Gardens[27] the enemy kept at such a respectful distance that they had no need to use their bayonets. As each man retired, he would be busy inserting a cartridge in his rifle, and then he would turn round, fire, and continue the retirement.  The confusion was great from the commencement, but when the retreating line reached the deep nullah, a considerable obstacle at the best of times, it became a regular chaos. Into it they all tumbled pell mell, and such was the rush that McMath’s Colour Sergeant fell upon his own bayonet and was killed. Of the officers many were wounded before reaching the Gardens: Garrett was shot through the legs, and after trying in vain to struggle on fell down. MacMath was wound in the hand just before the line gave way, and shortly after was seen on his horse slowly retiring with his Company, his right arm shattered and hanging by a shred of flesh, but after that he must have been hit again, for he never reached the Gardens though his horse came into Kandahar. The Colonel was also wounded when he reached the Gardens, and poor Rayner[28] our Adj: had his shoulder shattered. Honeywood[29], Barr[30] and Lynch[31] all entered the Gardens, and so I believe did Roberts, but I am not sure about that. Cullen was shot dead at an early period of the retirement. Of four youngsters who joined us at Kandahar, only the other day, only one came out of the battle. At the beginning of the fight the Colours were carried by Olivey[32] and Honeywood, both of who clung to them after they were wounded; Olivey, it is said, angrily refusing to give them up. Honeywood, badly wounded in the legs and unable to stand, was holding his Colours up high, and calling on the men to rally round it, when the death shot struck him. Barr and the Sergeant Major, who took them next, were killed almost at once; and the Colonel when last seen was on his knees clinging to one.


It soon became evident that the attempt to stand in the Garden was hopeless. The General could do nothing without his Staff, and Heath[33] his Brigade Major, had had his head taken off with round shot, and Harris,[34] our regt. D.A.Q.M.G was wounded. In our own regiment, of the officers who went into action, eleven were killed or wounded either before or shortly after entering the Gardens. Of the remainder, Ready was Field Officer of the day, and in charge of the Baggage of the Brigade; Quarry and Bray with the baggage of the regt: Mellis[35] and the regular transport Officer also with the baggage. Pierse got a bullet through the helmet which partially stunned him, and when he recovered he was sent to the back of the Gardens by Colonel Mainwaring of Jacobs Rifles to prevent any men leaving it. Faunce[36] had retired with the smooth-bore battery, whose left division he commanded, so of all our officers only two were left unhurt with our men in the Gardens. The Native Infantry regiments had lost nearly as many in proportion to their numbers.


Broken up and scattered and crowded upon by the panic stricken Sepoys, the 66th continued to fight in knots and groups – many who tried to rally to the Colours were carried away by the stream of fugitives – “in the lost battle bourne down by the flying” – so utterly cowed were the men of Jacobs Rifles that when Pierse, standing with his cocked revolver to the rear entrance of the Gardens, forbad them to leave it, they crouched down by the back wall, until they were killed like a flock of unresisting sheep.


At last the General saw it was of no use, so he ordered the “retire” to be sounded, and told the men to make the best of their way to Kandahar – some five and forty miles away. Then most of the men who could extricate themselves withdrew from the Garden – though some would not retire, and stood to the last where the Colours or some disabled officer offered a point of attraction. Many a V.C. was earned that day by those who are beyond the reach of all reward. Of all the 66th officers who entered the Garden, Olivey, Roberts, Pierse, Lynch and Lonnergan[37] only left it. Roberts, who was mortally wounded, was carried off on the General’s horse – his third – two having been killed under him. Lynch was also wounded, though able to walk.


As the men came out from the enclosures, they were, at one point, pressed rather closely by some of the enemy’s cavalry; but a few of our fellows, chiefly belonging to my old Company F, rushed at the horsemen with the bayonet and drove them off. The enemy’s infantry and Ghazis did not press the retreat far beyond the Gardens.


In the meantime, Quarry’s Company was successfully guarding the baggage against the enemy’s cavalry – though our own Squadrons in retreating had thrown the camels into confusion, and nearly ridden over some of his men; but soon the camel drivers took to their heels, and then the animals scattered hopelessly, and as Quarry was still holding his ground, Ready[38] rode up and told him that the “retire” had been sounded and he was cut off. Quarry had no idea of the work that had being going on in the gardens, and he asked “Where is the regiment?” Then Ready, pointing to the remnant of Quarry’s own Company – the only one of the six that now retained any formation – said with a smile – “There is your regiment.” Then Quarry abandoning the hopeless attempt to guard the baggage, betook himself the task of covering the Guns, already well started on the line of retreat. Falling back slowly but steadily, he crossed the fatal nullah in good order, and from behind it, delivered some telling volleys. The enemy’s Cavalry were hovering all around him, but his men’s steady shooting kept them at a respectable distance; and so fighting for every yard of ground and preserving something of a well ordered rear guard, G Company of the 66th Regt: the last remnant of Burrows Brigade, left the battlefield of Maiwand.


It was past four o’clock. The prospect of plunder offered by the baggage stopped anything like a vigorous pursuit on the part of the enemy, otherwise not a man – not an infantry man at any rate – would have got into Kandahar. Still the retreat was a terrible business – though not so disastrous as some of the telegrams reported. Of the 276 killed and missing[39] in our own regt only about 20 men in the line of retreat, and some of those were killed by villagers, who turned out in arms all along the road.


No attempt was made by the General to rally the scattered Brigade and get them into something like formation: but the remnant of our own regiment was move in two collected bodies – one going ahead with Ready and Pierse, and the other under Quarry bringing up the rear.


No food or drink had passed the men’s lips since they left camp in the early morning, and the road was known to be waterless for the first twenty miles; and when at last they came to the spot where they expected water, the spring was found dried up. Can you blame the men who in the agonies of thirst, broke into and drank indiscriminately medicines and mess stores – especially when the latter were foolishly handed over to them. No attempt was made to “turn the fugitives from the waterless main road.” All through the night they struggled on, the men taking it in turns to ride on camels, and on the guns and wagons. The Gunners of E/B behaved nobly and were always ready to give up their seats to the wounded or over wearied men. The Smooth-bore battery stuck in the Argandat, the horses being utterly done, so the Guns were spiked and abandoned. At Kokoran, part of the 2 nd Brigade, who had been sent out to bring in the fugitives, met them, and drove off the tribesmen who had collected to intercept them. The last force with Quarry entered Kandahar about three o’clock on the afternoon of the 28th.


In our regiment two wounded officers and thirty wounded men were brought in. I am not certain of the number wounded in the other regiments, but the killed and missing were about as follows – (N.B. These terms are synonymous for Europeans –but necessarily so for Natives).


E/B: R.H.A.             3 Officers & 40 men   

66th Regt.                10 Officers & 276 men[40]

1st Gren.                  2 Officers & 360 men (about)

Jacobs Rifles:          3 Officers & 230 men

Sappers:                   1 Officer & 20 men

Cavalry Brig:           1 Officer & 60 men

Staff:                        1 Officer


Total killed and missing about 20 officers and 980 men. This does not include followers.


I am proud to say that not one unwounded man of Ours[41] threw away his Rifle.


I need not speak of what I feel for the loss of all these fine fellows. Except for two or three, all my greatest friends in the regiment have been swept away. The Colonel was as fine, honest, straightforward a gentleman as ever commanded a regt: McMath, Cullen, Roberts and Rayner were as fine fellows as there are in the Army. Honeywood, Olivey and Barr were, I believe as promising young fellows as one could wish for in one’s regiment, and they all died nobly, and as soldiers ought to die. But it is for poor Chute[42] I grieve most of all. There is no satisfactory evidence about what became of him. He was acting Quartermaster, and very busy during the day, bringing up and serving out reserve ammunition; but after the line broke, no one appears to have noticed him: no one saw him fall, and I am afraid the exact manner of his death will never be known.


P.S. As I suppose you would like to know, I may as well tell you now that the country about Kelat-i-Ghilazi remained quiet to the last – that Roberts[43] reached them on Aug: 23rd and took us on with him to Kandahar, when I was present in the engagement on the 31st and took part, though only a passive one, with the regiment in the battle of Sept: 1st.



Mrs. J.E.J Blateway wrote at the end of the account:


“I have a sort of feeling that Quarry – who copied this letter in his own hand – had something to do with the writing of it. An account from any other source would say more about his heroic conduct during the retreat – encouraging the men to keep going and giving up his seat to them and carrying their rifles (hence none were thrown away?). Also there are some turns of phrase that I am sure are his – unless it’s the Irish speaking. Of course he spoke of the battle of Maiwand but not of the line breaking or the “infernal Jacobs Rifles! I wonder if it’s significant that he didn’t go to the unveiling of the ‘Lion of Maiwand’ (Geo:Simonds sculpt) in Reading in 1882?[44] I think John would have said “What could you expect from Bombay regts? Difference if they’d been Punjabis or Sikhs.




The following are reproduced by kind permission of the Curator The Rifles (Berkshire & Wiltshire) Museum, Salisbury:

Letter donated by Mrs. J.E.J Blateway

Photograph of Lieutenant M.L. O’Donel.













Map of the Battle of Maiwand: Hanna, Colonel H.B., The Second Afghan War 1878-79-80: Its Causes, Its Conduct & Its Consequences – Volume 3 (Constable 1910)






[1] Khelat-i-Ghilzai. A small garrison about 90 miles north of Kandahar on the Kabul to Kandahar road.

[2] Ayoub Khan. Commander of the Afghanistan Army.

[3] Colonel Oliver Beauchamp St.John was the Political Officer attached to Brigadier-General Burrows staff. He ran a network of native informers and spies to provide intelligence on Ayoub Khan’s army.

[4] Brigadier-General George Scott Reynolds Burrows. Commissioned 1844. Held various staff posts and had no experience in active service prior to his appointment as an Infantry Commander at Kandahar.

[5] Kushk-i-Nakhud.

[6] Wali Sher Ali Khan, the Governor of Kandahar. He had his army, supposedly loyal, encamped by the banks of the River Helmand.

[7] Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Horace Searle Anderson.

[8] Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William George Mainwaring.

[9] Commanded by Major P. A. Currie

[10] Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel  J.H.P. Malcolmson

[11] This is a significant remark especially by a junior officer who was not present at the battle. Burrows was certainly remiss in the way he handled his force and the lack of depth, detail and accountability in his despatches and narratives give the impression that he was being economical with the truth. Certainly they did not match up to the detailed reports submitted by his staff officers. Many felt that Burrows was not brought to account and was effectively let off the hook. However, his actions and bravery on the field can not be questioned. This subject is worthy of further scrutiny and will be published as a paper in future journal.

[12] Lieutenant Hector Maclaine, E Battery B Brigade Royal Horse Artillery.

[13] Following the battle there was much debate and innuendo on Maclaine’s actions and whether or not he was following orders or working on his own volition. This interesting point will be subject of a paper to published in a future edition of The Last Stand.

[14] Captain John Quarry. Commissioned 1861. Joined the 66th 1876. Died at Fareham 1912.

[15] A watercourse that was either dry or containing water that crossed the landscape.

[16] The sketch map is missing from the letter donated to the museum.

[17] Captain William Hamish McMath. Commissioned 1865. Killed in action. Commanded D Company at Maiwand.

[18] B Company commanded by Captain Francis James Cullen. Commissioned 1865. Joined the 66th in India 1870. Killed in Action.

[19] C Company commanded by Captain William Roberts. Commissioned 1865. Joined the 66th in India in 1871. Died of wounds received in the battle of Maiwand. Buried at Kandahar.

[20] Major George Frederick Blackwood. Commanded E Battery B Brigade Royal Horse Artillery at Maiwand. Killed in Action.

[21] Captain William J. de la Poer Beresford-Peirse. Joined the 66th in India 1874. Brevet Captain at Maiwand. Commanded H Company.

[22] F Company. Commanded by Captain Ernest Stephen Garratt. Commissioned 1865. Joined the 66th 1870. Killed in Action.

[23] Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel James Galbraith. Commissioned 1851 and gazetted to the 66th. Commanded the regiment from November 1879 until killed in action at Maiwand in July 1880.

[24] Situated at the village of Mundabad.

[25] Brigadier-General Thomas Nuttall. Commissioned 1843. Held various posts in India. Present in the Abbysinian Campaign 1867. No previous experience in Artillery and Cavalry for which he was responsible for at Maiwand.

[26] Following the return to Kandahar both cavalry commanders, Lieutenant Colonel J.H.P Malcolmson and Major A. P. Currie were placed under arrest and tried by Court Martial for cowardice and disobeying orders on the field of battle. Both were acquitted by the board.

[27] Situated at Khig. Not to be confused with the gardens at Mundabad south of Khig.

[28] Lieutenant Maurice Edward Rayner. Commissioned 1875. Regimental Adjutant. Killed in Action.

[29] Second Lieutenant Arthur Honywood. Commissioned 1879. Custodian of the Regimental Colour at Maiwand. Killed in Action.

[30] Second Lieutenant Harry James Outrum Barr. Commissioned 1880. Killed in Action

[31] Lieutenant Hyacinth Mason Lynch. Attached to D Company. Wounded at Maiwand. Died in 1947 and was the last surviving officer present at Maiwand.

[32] Second Lieutenant Walter Rice Olivey. Commisssioned 1879. Custodian of the Queen’s Colour at Maiwand. Killed in Action.

[33] Captain P.C. Heath. Bombay Staff Corps. Did not march with Field Force from Kandahar due to illness but joined Burrows on 20 July 1880. Killed in Action. Captain William Hamilton  McMath of the 66th had been appointed to Heath’s post until his return and resumed command of his D Company.

[34] Captain Thomas Harris. Seconded from the 66th to Burrows staff before leaving Kandahar.

[35] Second Lieutenant George Lawrence Mellis. Commissioned 1879. Maiwand Survivor. Transferred to the India Staff Corps in 1881.

[36] Lieutenant Granville de la Motte Faunce. Commissioned 1876. In charge of the smooth-bore battery at Maiwand.

[37] Second Lieutenant William Alfred Ernest Lonergan. Commissioned 1878. Cashiered from the army in 1882 following conviction at the Old Bailey for the theft of jewellery from a flat in London.

[38] Major John Tobin Ready. Joined the 66th in India 1870

[39] The final total was 285 killed. There are varying differences of opinion in the final total according to various sources, but the figure of 285 is accepted as a figure that can be reasonably accepted.

[40] See footnote 39. However, it may be that the extra one in O’Donel’s letter includes a Corporal from the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers who was with the 66th at Maiwand for some unexplained reason.

[41] Here O’Donel must be referring to his regiment the 66th.

[42] Lieutenant Richard Trevor Chute. Commissioned 1877. Joined the 66th in India 1877. Was the regiments Quartermaster on the battlefield at Maiwand. In all official accounts, narratives and reports no one officer can account for the demise of Chute. It has been generally believed that Chute was one of the famous last eleven.

[43] Here O’Donel means General Frederick Roberts, not Captain Roberts of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment

[44] In fact the Maiwand Lion memorial to the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment was unveiled in 1886.