Chapter 10
The Siege of Herat


Mohammed Shah left Tehran with a skeletal force on June 23, 1837. Units of the Persian army had assembled at various points along the route to Herat and others had been called up throughout Persia. By October 28, the army, now over 30,000 men, reached Torbat-e-Jam on the eastern frontier of Persia. During October the Persians suffered from cold, the horses were weak and worn out from lack of forage, supplies were low and could only be purchased at highly inflated prices, there was no discipline and no precautions were taken against surprise attack. 1

At Torbat-e-Jam final plans were made for a four-pronged assault on the territory of Herat. Ghurian surrendered on November 15 and as the invaders approached, the Heratis proceeded to carry out a scorched earth policy. By November 23 the advanced guard of the Persian army reached the city, whose defenders put up a fierce resistance in the northwestern suburbs. However, the Afghan soldiers retreated behind the walls as the main body of Persians arrived the following day. Mohammed Shah set up his camp southwest of Herat to await the city's fall. 2

The Shah had spent 155 days marching the 650 miles from Tehran to Herat. One hundred years earlier, Nadir Shah had covered 1200 miles between Isfahan and Kandahar, over more difficult and hostile terrain, in only 139 days. 3 The contrast points out once again the poor leadership in the Persian army. Mohammed Shah was not incompetent, he had been well trained in military matters and seemed to know what he was doing. But he was fatally indecisive. Even when he could be brought to decide on a certain course of action he would seldom follow through on it. 4

The inability of the Shah to make decisions had serious consequences for the Persian army. Haji Mirza Aghasi, the Persian vizier, wanted to delay the taking of Herat until the Russians honored their promises of aid and his intrigues seriously hampered the war effort. The Persian officers seemed to be more interested in preventing their rivals from doing anything than in doing something themselves. There were indications that many of them had taken British bribes. Finally the Persians had to put up with both British and Russian observers who came with the army. The British constantly accused the Russians of aiding the Persians, but they themselves did not scruple about helping the Afghans in spite of their treaties. 5

The greatest problem the Persians faced was how to feed their men. What little supplies they had were quickly used up and the lines back to Mashad were insecure and often impassable. The harvests around Herat took place in late spring and late Fall so the slow Persian march gave the defenders plenty of time to gather the grain or destroy it. At first the Persians hardly had any food at all but in December and January they began sending out expeditions to gather supplies from the remoter countryside that had escaped destruction. In the spring of 1838 the Persians planted their own crops and it was only after these were harvested that the supply problem was really solved. 6

The resolve of Yar Mohammed Khan to defend the city was greatly strengthened by the timely arrival of a British officer. Lt. Eldred Pottinger was an artillery and political officer who was traveling on an unofficial fact-finding mission in Central Asia and just happened to be in Herat when the siege began. Some accounts say that Pottinger was sent on a secret mission to help Herat, others merely hint that he was more than just a traveller. It would not have been inconsistent for the British to have sent him to help in the defense, they certainly had time to do so, but none of this can be proven. 7

The fighting during November was limited to skirmishing. The Persians made ineffective and uncoordinated attacks on the walls and fired cannon at random into the city. The Persians at first did not have enough men to completely surround the city and three of the five gates remained open. The Afghans were even able to send their cattle out to graze. By January the Persians had increased their force to nearly 40,000 men and the ring around Herat had tightened but not closed. Winter did not hinder operations but there were many desertions from the Persian army. One of the Persian divisions that had gone north had reached Maimana and succeeded in its objective of neutralizing the tribes. Meanwhile the Persians had advanced their trenches to within yards of the moat and mines were being dug under the walls. However there was no serious effort to storm the city. Both sides had settled in for a long siege. 8

The Persian army at Herat was considered a direct threat to the forward policy and the security of India. The stubborn defense and the fact that the Persians could support a large army there seemed to prove the great strategic value of the place, both as a bulwark of defense and as a staging ground for invasion. 9 The real reason for British alarm however, and what made this campaign different from and more serious than that of 1833, was the direct involvement of the Russians and the repercussions this was having in Afghanistan.

Simonich had encouraged this project ever since his arrival in Persia and had promised aid and furnished money to the Persians. Simonich was apparently free to use the money that Persia had collected to pay the rest of the indemnity from the Russian war. According to British reports, he used some of this fund to pay the expenses of the Persian army and also promised that if Persia took Herat the rest of the indemnity would be canceled. 10 Nothing short of sending Russian troops could have been more direct, but even worse from the British point of view was the activity of Simonich in Afghanistan. He was trying to isolate Herat and arrange a coalition of states to help the Persians reduce the city. Both Kandahar and Kabul had reason to join such an arrangement and a major diplomatic battle developed at Kabul between British and Russian agents.

Dost Mohammed was at the center of all this. The Sikhs, in alliance with Britain, were pressing him on one side while the Persians, supported by Russia were active on his other flank. He preferred the support of the British who were closer and more powerful, and able to restrain Ranjit Singh, but at the same time he reasoned that the British would be more eager to aid him if it was known that otherwise he would turn to Persia and Russia. The appearance in Kabul of Burnes in September, and Captain Vitkevitch, a Russian agent, in December, gave Dost a great opportunity to play one off against the other.

Burnes was favorable to Dost Mohammed and argued his case in his reports to the Governor- General. Auckland however, stuck to his alliance with Ranjit Singh, whom he considered practically the only stable factor in the whole area. Certainly the recent history of Afghanistan gave little hope of long-range stability. Burnes therefore could offer nothing and this gave Vitkevitch his opportunity. 11 Vitkevitch came from Kandahar where he had been working on a treaty between Kohendil Khan and the Shah. In Kabul he spared no effort to point out the advantages of alliance with Persia and he made great promises of Russian aid. Dost would tell each what the other had promised in the hope of getting further promises but he could never get what he really wanted, Peshawar, from Burnes. Finally in March 1838, Burnes was asked to leave Kabul. 12

When Burnes left Kabul, Kandahar had all but signed an alliance with Persia. As Auckland saw it, Herat was about to fall and Kabul and Kandahar had aligned themselves with Persia (Russia). supported by a victorious Persia, the Afghans would likely take the offensive against the Sikhs. Ranjit Singh might not be able to hold his own and the defenses of India would be in shambles. The very events the forward policy was designed to prevent seemed imminent and Auckland decided that intervention was necessary. Auckland had other problems to worry about as well In addition to Afghanistan, Nepal and Burma were threatening war on the Indian border. Relations with China were deteriorating over the questions of trade and opium. Mohammed Ali's armies were active in Arabia where they appeared to be pushing towards the Persian Gulf and finally the conflict between Mohammed Ali and Sultan Mahmud could flair up at any time with serious threats to European peace.

As Auckland weighed his various alternatives the Russian government was also reconsidering the situation. The result was that the Tsar decided to back off from the recent Persian policy. Exactly when and why he did this is obscure but the decision must have been made in March or April of 1838. 13 At that time the Russians couldn't have known about the failure of British negotiations at Kabul or of Auckland's decision. What they did know was that after several months the Shah had not been able to take Herat. They would also have known that Simonich's diplomacy in Afghanistan was alarming to the British. The Tsar possibly realized that if the situation did not change the British might over-react and this could have far-reaching consequences. Under the circumstances he decided to recall Simonich and withdraw support from Persia, but unfortunately communications were so slow that this decision did not become known until it was too late.

Both British and Russian agents were active at Herat. The British accused the Russians of financing the whole Persian effort and there were suggestions that much of the Persian ineffectiveness was caused by judiciously placed British bribes. The real extent and effectiveness of this activity will probably never be known but some of the British activity was more open. In April, 1838, McNeill decided to go to Herat to see what he could do and when he arrived the Persians were preparing for a major assault. On April 18 the Persian cannon began a heavy bombardment which opened large gaps in the walls and an assault was ordered for the night of the 19th. McNeill later said that the troops were eager to go but they never got a chance for on the day of the 19th, McNeill talked the Shah into calling a truce and trying negotiations once again. The assault was canceled and McNeill wrote Palmerston that whereas the Persians had been primed for an assault that night, it would be difficult for their morale to reach the same level again, "as I anticipated". 14

Shortly after McNeill left Tehran for Herat, Count Simonich decided to follow. He arrived on April 20, just after McNeill had frustrated the assault and he exerted himself to see that this would not happen again. First he persuaded the Shah to cancel negotiations which had bogged down anyway. Simonich tried to inject new life into the Persian army, most importantly by keeping the Shah firm in his resolve to take the city. He also paid the Persian officers and men which did wonders to restore their morale. Finally Russian officers with Simonich advised the Persians and helped them with their plans. All the while Simonich did not know that he had been recalled. 15

By June the Persians had completely sealed off Herat. Crops were being harvested and reinforcements were arriving regularly. Simonich's diplomacy was beginning to pay off as well, as a treaty was signed with Kohendil Khan that bound Kandahar to Persia. Simonich personally guaranteed the treaty in the name of the Tsar. 16 Herat under siege was a different story. Supplies were running low, Persian cannon had caused widespread destruction, and there was disease and famine. The Heratis also had to suffer from their own defenders, the troops of Yar Mohammed, who ruthlessly confiscated supplies and money wherever they could be found. Yar was also quick to crush even the slightest hint of a pro-Persian movement among the citizens. The people of Herat lived under a reign of terror. 17

With Simonich at Herat McNeill's position became untenable. His presence only encouraged Herat to resist the siege and he was snubbed, ignored, harassed, his messengers and servants attacked, until he decided that it was insufferable for the Minister of Great Britain to put up with such treatment. He made a final effort to resolve the differences between Britain and Persia and when the Persians rejected this he left Herat on June 7, and broke off diplomatic relations. 18 The original Russian objective was thereby achieved but the far-reaching consequences that the Russians had feared were beginning to happen.

These developments marked the low point as far as the British were concerned. McNeill had been forced to break with Persia. It looked as though the fall of Herat was imminent. Kandahar had allied with Persia and Kabul was leaning in that direction. The British on all fronts launched a massive effort to restore the situation in their favor and the first move was already underway. In order to exert direct pressure on Persia, Auckland had decided to send a small force to the island of Khark in the Persian Gulf. Five hundred Sepoys sailed from Bombay on June 4. 19 Auckland also began to increase the strength of the Indian army and started negotiations with Ranjit Singh and Shah Shuja to arrange Suja's restoration to the Afghan throne. At the same time, negotiations were begun with the Ottoman empire to put pressure on both Persia and Russia from that quarter. 20

Throughout June rumors of warlike preparations of the British in India were reaching the Shah. He could only assume, especially after McNeill's departure from Herat, that these were directed at him. The Persians also expected a British ultimatum threatening war if they did not withdraw. Finally on June 22, Simonich received official word that he was recalled and that the Tsar had changed his policy. An emergency council was held and the Shah decided to make a final all-out effort before it was too late. An assault was ordered for June 24th. 21

The plan called for a simultaneous assault at noon, when both sides were usually sleeping, on five places along the south and west walls. The assault was preceded by a cannonade which was to make breaches in the walls. One of the attacking columns, at the southwest corner, turned back shortly after leaving its trenches. At the Irak gate and in the northwest quadrant, the Persians advanced to the foot of the rampart but were beaten back. The attack at the Kandahar gate was easily repulsed and the Persians were chased back to their trenches. The southeast corner however, was the scene of bitter fighting and the issue was in doubt there for several hours. 22

A French adventurer in the Persian army, General Semineau, was in charge of the Assault at this place. On the previous day the tower at the corner was demolished by cannon fire, much to the amazement of both Persians and Afghans. On the 24th, the assault commenced at noon as planned, but of the four battalions assigned to attack only one did so. These 400 men gained a foothold in the breach but they encountered fierce resistance. They called for reinforcements from the other battalions but these refused to move. Semineau claimed they were immobilized by British gold and the orders of Haji Mirza Aghasi, the Persian Vizier. Finally Semineau prevailed upon General Berovski, a Polish soldier in the Persian service, to rally a few companies in support of the attack. But they fell back when Berovski was killed. Semineau claimed that Berovski was shot from behind and that he himself was wounded by fire from the rear. No further aid was forthcoming. The Persians in the breach held out for five hours but were eventually forced to retreat. 23

A slightly different story came from Lt. Pottinger inside Herat. After the heavy fire of the Persian cannon ceased, the Afghans relaxed and so were surprised by the assault at noon. At the southeast corner the Persians gained the lower trench and advanced to the upper one. They were thrown back but they advanced again and carried it. From there they assaulted the breach in the wall. They attacked and were pushed back several times. Both Yar Mohammed and Pottinger rushed to the scene. Yar Mohammed lost hope and was about to give up but the example of Pottinger, who rushed into action, restored his confidence. The defenders were wavering but when Yar furiously rushed into combat they fell on the Persians and drove them back. 24

The Persians were repulsed in total failure, due perhaps in part to the heroism of Pottinger or treason among the Persians but fundamentally to the complete ineffectiveness of the Persian army. Pottinger later said that the Persians could have taken the city the first day with proper use of the means at their disposal, and that one British regiment could have stormed the place with ease. Semineau claimed that if his plans had been followed not even the most blatant treason could have prevented victory. 25


Next