The Last Stand Of The 66th (Berkshire) Regiment

Afghanistan, 1880


Richard Stacpoole-Ryding








Published by The History Press, Stroud,

December 2008

ISBN: 978 0 7524 4537 3


Available from The Rifles (Berkshire & Wiltshire) Museum, Salisbury

The History Press, Online Booksellers and all good Bookshops


Price 19.99


The Victorian Wars Forum Book Review


Victorian Wars Forum (June 2009)


In 2001 the British Army began military operations in Afghanistan against the fanatical Taliban and, at the time of writing this review, the mission continues today.  However it is not the first time the boots of British infantrymen have trod the plains of Helmand province.  In 1879 British and Indian forces crossed into Afghanistan in the latest move of the so-called “Great Game” with Russia.  Afghanistan had been seen by the British as a vital buffer-zone between the Russians and Britain’s prize possession of India.  British fears of extending Russian influence into this area of the globe was of such great concern that they were prepared to go to war against the then Afghan Amir, Sher Ali Khan, who fatefully failed to readily accept British influence.  The Amir had allowed an uninvited Russian delegation to enter the Afghan capital at Kabul while the British envoy, General Sir Neville Chamberlain, was unceremoniously turned away at the Khyber Pass.  The weak Amir had to be replaced and so Britain went to war with Afghanistan in November 1878. 


Initially the war was a success for the British with a series of defeats inflicted upon the Afghan forces.  Soon the Treaty of Gandamak followed in May 1879 where the British installed a new Amir, Yakub Khan, to the Afghan throne and stationed a British envoy, Sir Louis Cavagnari, at Kabul.  However by September of the same year Cavagnari and his small military escort were dead, massacred by discontented Herati and Afghan troops.  And so the war recommenced and it is the infamous Battle of Maiwand, fought during this second phase, upon which this book primarily focuses.  A battle that still remains one of the worst defeats in British military history!  A battle forever engrained in the Berkshires regimental history!


The book itself begins in 1870 when the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment is given orders to travel to India for a not uncommon long period of duty on the sub-continent.  Here we are introduced to some of the real life characters of the Regiment, many of whom feature throughout the book and many of whom would take part in the defeat at Maiwand almost a decade later.  The emotions of the men are described in detail with many looking forward to the extra pay and promise of action or promotion often associated with such deployments.  Both the excitement and the boredom of duty in India are also examined with the daily life of the officers and men explored through their personal letters and other recordings that have survived in the Regimental archives and elsewhere.  The Regiment, like any other at the time, has its ups-and-downs while in India and faces the emotional upheaval of being amalgamated with the 49th Regiment under the proposed army reforms of the 1870s and early 1880s.  However as the war clouds gather the Regiment must put aside its concerns and make preparations for mobilisation.  The 66th was to miss the early successes of the campaign and instead must again settle into routine garrison duty – this time in Southern Afghanistan.  Again the book explores the daily lives of those who were there from primary sources and eyewitness accounts of those the reader was introduced to in earlier chapters.


With the scene firmly set we finally see the Regiment go into battle with the Afghan forces at Maiwand on the 27 July 1880.  Both the battlefield and the battle itself are described in great detail again using period eyewitness accounts from those who were there as well as other historical sources.  Bit by bit the reader sees the battle unfold and we again meet some of the now familiar characters of the Regiment and explore some of their personal experiences.  The first and last stands are recounted in detail before the hard and bitter retreat to Kandahar and the following siege and battle which the surviving Berkshires must also endure.  The book moves on to the aftermath detailing casualties and other statistics of interest highlighting the severity of the defeat suffered by the Regiment.  The mistakes and factors leading to the defeat are given a fresh examination as well as the bravery of the men on the spot and the subsequent awards of no less than six Distinguished Conduct Medals. 


Unlike many histories of famous (or infamous) battles the story does not end here.  The book sees the Regiment’s return to England and gives the reader an insight into what happened to the 66th and some of the survivors back home.  Even with the final chapter finished more can be learned from the various appendices exploring the memorials, selected biographies of members of the Regiment and a full list of those in the Regiment who took part in the campaign and were to receive the campaign medal.  There is even mention of the connection between the fictional Sherlock Holmes stories and the 66th – Dr Watson was, after all, a survivor of Maiwand in Arthur Conan Doyle’s literally world.


The book itself does not give a full history of the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880 but rather concentrates on the 66th Regiment’s deployment to India, the subsequent action at Maiwand and the immediate aftermath.  However the book does an excellent job of allowing the non-Second Anglo-Afghan War expert to gain enough understanding of the backdrop of the campaign in which the Regiment became heavily and disastrously involved.  It is therefore not essential for the reader to read up on the campaign in the wider context before attempting this more specialised text.  The book is also easy to read and the use of first-hand accounts from those who took part really does bring the story to life.  The use of period photos from the time, many depicting the men of the Regiment, also adds much to the book as do the usual engravings and maps found in military history books of this type.  A new re-examination of the Battle of Maiwand has been long overdue and this new book certainly does not disappoint!


Mark Simner



Review Published in National Magazines


Medal News August 2009


The British have been trying to impose their will on Afghanistan now for over 170 years with, as we are only too well aware, very little success so far. This is the story of one of the more famous episodes during that time: an event which has been compared with a similar occasion in South Africa only 18 months before. One hopes that everyone with only a smattering of military history will be at least aware of this epic last stand of the Berkshires at Maiwand and here Richard Stacpoole-Ryding provides us with a complete diary of events from the regiment’s arrival in India to their return to England. Thee are many good photographic illustrations, along with the indispensable maps and the last 50 odd pages are devoted to such matters as a nominal roll of those involved (with medal entitlement), memorials, selected biographies and a most helpful glossary of military terms. Without wishing in any way to belittle the author’s excellent efforts, this is real Boys Own stuff and the work of their 21st century descendants is well up to the standard of their gallant forebears. Recommended.


Allan Stanistreet

Soldier Magazine June 2009


The small print and similarity of colourless photos used to give this title – which recounts a British disaster during the second Anglo-Afghan War – the look and feel of a text book. However, Maiwand does come alive when it draws on gritty first-hand accounts to give insight into this extraordinary battle. It’s certainly not written for a wider audience, which is disappointing as the book tells an important story of how 19 th Century imperialism went wrong and how a Western power was defeated by and Asian force.


Major Eddie Elms AGC



Reviews Published In Other Journals


Practice Notes March 2008

The Friends of Dr. Watson


This is a first-rate account of an event that, like Dunkirk, epitomised the spirit of the British Empire. We were soundly beaten - but we were magnificent in defeat.


Unlike the two most popular records of this debacle[1], Richard has almost wholly concentrated on the people and personalities of the 66th, the regiment to which Watson was attached. His access to the archives of The Rifles (Berkshire and Wiltshire) Museum has given us an intimate knowledge of the participants in this ill-fated engagement.


This has necessitated a lengthy preamble of the ten years sojourn of the regiment in India prior to the outbreak of the Second Afghan War, so that in the accounts - most of them quoted at first-hand - of the actual battle we encounter old friends - even the reprobate Private Battle whose permission to re-enlist seems astonishing with his record of delinquency dating from the first day of his initial entry into the adult ranks. He redeemed himself in the action of July 27 1880, being awarded the DCM.


The battle itself is described in minute, but never tedious, detail, based not solely on official records, but on personal diaries, letters home and reminiscences of those who were there. Maps and diagrams make plain who did what and where they did it.


It is not only the affair at Maiwand that is essential to the story, however. The full account of Burrows' Field Force is necessary for the understanding of what went wrong, just as the saga of the long journey back to Kandahar and its subsequent siege is necessary to round off the story - but even that is not enough. We learn what happened after Roberts's relief of Kandahar and the further history of the depleted regiment after its return home. Finally, we have potted biographies of some of the principle protagonists, with a full roll-call of the men of the regiment 1870-1881 given, as is a list of some of the camp followers who died at Maiwand.


Having read of the incredible bravery in appalling conditions it seems somewhat unfair that Kipling's That Day is also appended. Those men had fought against overwhelming odds, with no food and little water, under bombardment, in intense dusty heat for five hours or so and if they ran it was because there was nothing else to do.  Nearly half of the 66th survived to reach Kandahar. That was a triumph in itself.

The other units that participated in the Field Force and in the battle are only mentioned in passing, because this is a contribution to the history of the 66th under its various names. This partly accounts for the paucity of any mention of the medical arrangements.  According to this version, Surgeon-Major Preston functioned as a one-man surgical unit, retrieving casualties from the front line, until he was wounded. He was attached to the 66th as regimental surgeon, so perhaps he thought his duty lay with "his" men rather than back at the field hospital. Unfortunately, the muster of the various ranks of officers includes only the regimental officers, not attached men such as surgeons and padres, so we have no information here on the presence of any Assistant-Surgeon or Surgeon-Captain that might have been present.


Preston was of the Army Medical Department, not the Berkshires, to which he was merely attached, so that his full story must be sought elsewhere. We know of Surgeon Dane of the 30th Bombay Native Infantry (Jacob’s Rifles) and that there was a field hospital back behind the lines in the ravine with the baggage. We would like to know more. Can Richard be persuaded to research the full medical facilities at Maiwand?


Dr. Tim Healey



The District Messenger March 2009

The Sherlock Holmes Society of London


The most easily accessible account of the ‘fatal battle’ was Leigh Maxwell’s excellent My God – Maiwand.  Now we also have Maiwand: The Last Stand of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment in Afghanistan, 1880 by Richard Stacpoole-Ryding, which for the first time, I think, looks at the Battle of Maiwand specifically in relation to Dr Watson’s regiment. This scrupulously researched and engagingly written book follows the Berkshires from Ireland to India in 1870, and takes us briefly through the next decade, so that when the cataclysmic battle breaks out we feel we know the men who fought against Ayub Khan’s army. Thanks to the remarkable archive of official and personal papers held at The Rifles (Berkshire and Wiltshire) Museum, the author is able to present the officers and men as living human beings, not merely fighting units, both in the main texts and more fully in an appendix of biographical sketches.  Other appendices look briefly at connections with Rudyard Kipling and with John H Watson. Mr Stacpoole-Ryding founded The Friends of Dr Watson, and he proves to be a fine storyteller himself, describing the Berkshires’ heroic stand vividly and clearly. The link to the canon is a bonus.


Roger Johnson



Berkhsire Family Historian June 2009

The Quarterly Journal of the Berkshire Family History Society


This book is well researched and well presented. It will almost certainly become the classic source of information about the history of the 66 th in India and Afghanistan, and the regiment’s return to England in 1881. One of the appendices contains a list of men who served between 1870 and 1881, Indian camp followers, memorials, selected bibliographies and much else….

Reader’s Comments


“I have finally finished your book!


I found the attention to detail fascinating. Admittedly, the first chapter made the book seem daunting as I was having difficulty remembering names and to what companies they were attached. However, with the following chapters they all seemed to fit into place.


I particularly liked the many mentions of the rank and file soldiers rather than just giving accounts of the officers and also your own clarification of the letters sent home.


The overriding positive for myself was the battle maps without which I know I would have found difficult to follow.


Obviously, my priority in the book was to learn more of Pte John Beech 66/1629 enlisted 1869 although more information was not to be had as I already knew from yourself that he died in 1880 at Bibinania.  Although all this was more than I knew a year ago! Your book has inspired me to work again on his family relation aspect – the last I have found is that he was born within the St Giles parish of Reading.

Your book is a must for any surviving relatives of those who served with the 66th and I found it thoroughly informative.” – Phil Beech (Descendent of 1629 Pte John Beech 66th (Berkshire) Regiment)


“Have received a copy of “Maiwand” – Really excellent – Thanks – a lot of research and work must have gone into the book – Very pleased.” – David Haylock


I have already bought a copy of the book and it is really superb.” – Nick Simpson


“I'm glad to see that "Maiwand: The Last Stand of the Berkshires" appears to be omnipresent on the web. It deserves to sell by the cartload!” – Roger Johnson


“I finished reading ‘Maiwand’ over the weekend and just wanted to let you know how much I thoroughly enjoyed reading it…Besides the campaign’s relevance to British military history as a whole, and the insight into the everyday life of a British regiment abroad at this time which the book gave, it is naturally fascinating stuff to those like myself with an interest in the Royal Berkshire Regiment and it brought home to me what an influential action it was in helping to forge the identity of the regiment a the time of the reforms. Also, on a more personal level, to find that there were at least 3 men from my home parish of Welford, Berks (Acott, Lovegrove and Perris) made a real connection. – Bob Chandler



What the Papers Say


The story of brave soldiers who died on the dusty plains of Afghanistan more than 100 yeas ago has been brought to life in a newly published book.


‘Maiwand’ tells the tail of a terrible battle fought by the 66th Berkshire Regiment on July 27 1880 in which an entire platoon of 285 men were killed.


The book’s author Richard J Stacpoole-Ryding believes threads can be traced back connecting British troops operating in Helmand Province today with their forebears in the 19th century.


The book, written in association with The Rifles (Berkshire and Wiltshire) Museum also tells the individual stories of infantry men from Maidenhead, Twyford, Cookham and Waltham St. Lawrence, who lost their lives.

Windsor Express, Maidenhead Advertiser, Slough Express












[1] Maxwell, Leigh: My God-Maiwand, Leo Cooper, London 1979. 

  Perrett, Brian, Against All Odds, Brockhampton, London 1999.