Sutton Coldfield

Foreign History

Place: United Reformed Church, Sutton Coldfield, B73 6AA
Day: Weekly on Thursdays.
Time: 2.00 pm
Cost: £2
Speaker: Toby McLeod

Definitive meeting dates are displayed in the Monthly Programme.

Subject: Foreign History - The Great Game

2020 Meeting dates for the Foreign History group at Sutton Coldfield U3A are as follows:

January 9; January 16; January 23;January 30; February 6; February 20; February 27; March 5; March 12; March 19.

The Great Game – 1826 - 1947

In 1826, Russia attacked Persia and became the dominant influence in that country. Ottoman Turkey could only look on aghast. Fear grew in London and Calcutta that the North-West Frontier of the Empire was threatened by Czarist Russia. The Russians were indeed making inroads into Central Asia. While some Russian generals may have dreamt of conquering India they were still 2000 miles away beyond two major local kingdoms – the Punjab and Afghanistan.

Informed opinion held that any Russian invasion would be best met on the plains rather than the difficult and broken country of the Hindu Kush or in Central Asia where supply would be impossible

The Russians began to talk openly of the coming war with Britain where the belief was that the Russians would use Afghanistan as a launching point for an invasion of British held India and would therefore seek to establish influence in the country prior to the stationing of troops for an expedition.

In 1834, after a period of peace and stability, a new ruler succeeded to the peacock throne of Persia, and encouraged by his Russian advisers his ambition knew no bounds. He moved into the border area of Herat, ethnically Farsi, causing major panic in London.

This was the beginning of ‘The Great Game’, and the result was that in the Spring of 1839 the British invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos, nearly 20,000 British and East India company troops poured into the passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. On the way in, the British faced little resistance; but after two years of occupation, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion. The first Anglo-Afghan war ended in Britain’s greatest military humiliation of the nineteenth century. An entire army of what was then the most powerful nation in the world ambushed in retreat through high mountain snow drifts and was utterly routed by Afghan tribesmen.

The second lecture in the series began with the Russian expansion and expeditions across the Steppes but this led only to disaster because of the harsh climatic and topographical conditions. However they did manage to seize a vast area of northern Asia as far as the Pacific coast at Vladivostok. Yet the major prize of the Great Game was the expansion of trade enhanced by control of the Silk Road via Bokhara.

Britain held sway across the North West Frontier following the conquest of the Punjab in 1849. There followed the Anglo-Persian War of 1856-1857 and British India exploded into rebellion in 1857 with the Indian Mutiny.

From 1849 there had been fighting on the North West Frontier every year with various holy men preaching jihad which espoused a vision of the end of British rule in India, before and after the Mutiny, and looked forward to the arrival of the Mahdi, a new prophet, who would lead his victorious followers out of the mountains on a rampage of vengeance. However although many fanatics were killed in 1863, the idea of jihad refused to die, and 12,500 British troops had to mount another expedition just five years later – this was more than had been required to capture Peking in 1860! The Russians too had their own problems with Islamism, and appealed to the British to help combat it, claiming that this was the only threat to British rule in India. The Czar’s troops hand conquered Bokhara (Uzbekistan) in 1869, bringing them to the Oxus and northern frontier of Afghanistan. The conquest of Tashkent, Samarkand and Khokand by 1870 ensured Russian control of the Silk Road, and Khiva itself. It was the beginning of the Russian war with the Chechens, one that persists to this day, in an atmosphere of unparalleled rancour.

In 1873 the first Anglo-Russian treaty on Afghanistan was signed but when in 1876 the Tories appointed the hawkish Lord Lytton as viceroy war could not be far away...

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