Soldiers in Helmand unearth British rifles lost in 1880 massacre

Weapons taken after a Victorian defeat in Afghanistan have been recovered – and repatriated as antiques

Keith Howitt
Sunday 08 June 2008 00:00 BST

British soldiers serving in Afghanistan have recovered weapons looted from the bodies of their Victorian forebears.

Rare Martini-Henry rifles lost in the bloody defeat at Maiwand in July 1880 have been retrieved 128 years later by troops fighting the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in Helmand province.

Two of the rifles, dated 1874 and 1878, are currently on sale in a Sussex antique shop for £1,100 apiece.

Mark Hawkins, co-owner of The Lanes Armoury, Brighton, said: "When we first fought the Afghans, we kept sending out armies who lost. The Afghans killed our chaps and took their weapons.

"Now British officers are finding these guns, recognise them for what they are, and are getting permission to bring them back. We've had a few through. I think a soldier might pick up a couple, keep one as a souvenir of his time in Afghanistan, and bring the other to us."

Peter Smithurst, senior curator of historic firearms at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, said: "The Martini-Henry was the first purpose-made breech-loading rifle introduced into British service. It is an iconic rifle."

The Martini is particularly popular with collectors, he said, because of both its place in the development of firearms technology and for the role it played in the famous battles of Britain's colonial campaigns.

Mr Smithurst said Afghanistan was increasingly a source of antique firearms. "I have been getting quite a few email inquiries from British servicemen and the American forces as well."

Mr Hawkins said: "The Martini-Henry is a very, very collectable gun – almost entirely down to Michael Caine and the film Zulu. Everyone who has seen that film has seen the Martini-Henry and knows it is the rifle used by the British in that era."

Unlike the successful defence of Rorke's Drift in 1879, as featured in Zulu, the battle of Maiwand a year later was one of the worst British defeats of Queen Victoria's 63-year reign. A 2,500-strong Anglo/Indian force was routed by an Afghan army of about 12,000 men.

Among the 1,000 British and Indian dead were 286 men of the Martini-armed 66th (Berkshire) Regiment, who made a last stand in a walled garden in the village of Khig. When only two officers and nine men of the 66th remained alive, they charged the hordes of tribesmen surrounding them.

An Afghan witness described the end: "These men charged from the shelter of a garden and died with their faces to the enemy. So fierce was their charge, and so brave their actions, no Afghan dared approach to cut them down. Standing in the open, back to back, firing steadily, every shot counting, surrounded by thousands, these British soldiers died. It was not until the last man was shot down that the Afghans dared to advance. The behaviour of those last 11 was the wonder of all who saw it."

The weapons they wielded so gallantly could finally be returning home.

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