Anglo-Russian Rivalry

Anglo-Russian Rivalry - First Anglo-Afghan War
Anglo-Russian Rivalry

The Great Game was the name given by British poet Rudyard Kipling to the struggle between czarist Russia and the British Empire for influence in Central Asia. The contest could actually be said to have begun as early as the 18th century.

That was when Catherine the Great of Russia conquered the last remnants of the Mogul Golden Horde that had first entered Russia in the time of Genghis Khan in the 13th century. In 1784 the last khan of the Crimea surrendered the Khanate of the Crimea to Catherine in exchange for a pension.

During the same period, the British East India Company was conquering the entire Indian subcontinent. In 1799, at Seringapatam, Tipu Sultan was defeated and killed by troops of the East India Company.


Between 1814 and 1816 Nepal was subdued, and the famed Nepalese Gurkha warriors first entered British service. In 1818 Governor-General Warren Hastings finally crushed the Maratha Confederacy, firmly establishing British supremacy.

The first documented mission of the British to learn Russian intentions dated from 1810, when Alexander I, czar of Russia, was temporarily allied to Napoleon I of France by the Treaty of Tilsit. Britaind had been at war with France since 1793, and the idea of huge Russian armies marching south to conquer India caused the British great alarm.

Although Napoleon and Alexander I went to war in June 1812, making Britain and France allies again as they had been before the Treaty of Tilsit, it did not mean the end of the Great Game. In fact, it was only the beginning.

Constant Combat

The collapse of the Golden Horde had left in its wake many independent khanates, such as those of Bokhara and Khiva. While strong enough to wage bloody wars among themselves, they were no match for the armies of Britain or Russia, which had been in almost constant combat for over two decades.

With the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the wartime alliance against him between Russia and Britain was soon forgotten. Instead, both great powers began to focus their imperial goals on Central Asia. The Russians desired to conquer the khanates, and the British desired to keep them as buffer states between the Russian Empire and the British Empire in India.

Beginning in 1839 Russia began a systematic conquest of Central Asia that followed the methodical planning of Czar Nicholas I. Concern over the Russian threat to India precipitated the First Afghan War in 1839.

By this time, Persia had become an ally of Russia and was using Russian troops in an attack on the city of Herat in Afghanistan, a country Persia had had its own imperial designs on since at least the 18th century.

George Eden, Lord Auckland, the governor-general of India since 1835, suspected that Dost Mohammed of Afghanistan’s Durrani dynasty sided with the Russians. Auckland invaded Afghanistan in 1839.

In August, the British army entered Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, with the former ruler, Shah Shuja, who Auckland felt to be more pro-British. Although the invasion went successfully, the occupation of Kabul ended in disaster.

Auckland’s emissary, Sir William Macnaghten, was killed, and only one man arrived in safety back in British territory in January 1842. A second British invasion as an expression of Britain’s power succeeded in reaching Kabul and evacuated successfully in December 1842.

Although the Afghans were suitably awed by the British ability to recoup their losses so quickly, this war was an unnecessary loss of lives and treasure, since the Russians abandoned their attempts to bring Afghanistan into their orbit before Auckland began the war.

Meanwhile, the British were consolidating their control of India. In 1843 the British under Sir Charles Napier conquered Sind. During the Sikh Wars the British defeated the once independent realm of the Sikhs in the Punjab, firmly adding it to their growing Indian empire.

First Anglo-Sikh war
First Anglo-Sikh war

Although the Sikh Wars were the most difficult the British ever fought in their conquest of India, the Sikhs ultimately became among the most redoubtable soldiers in England’s Indian army. It could be argued persuasively that this sudden imperial push on the part of the British was to deny control of the Punjab to the Russians.

The British entry into the Crimean War was in part due to British alarm over the seemingly unstoppable Russian march into Central Asia. Instead of being able to focus their energy on the khanates of Central Asia, the Russians had to face a British invasion of the Russian Crimea in 1854. The heavy Russian losses suffered in such battles as Inkerman, Balaklava, and the Alma River helped delay further Russian penetration of Central Asia by a decade.

Imperious Necessity

Then, in December 1864, Czar Alexander II’s foreign minister, Prince A. M. Gorchakov, wrote what would become the definitive expression of Russian imperialism in Central Asia. It contained an ominous note for the British.

Like all other expanding powers, Russia faced one great obstacle—“all have been irresistibly forced, less by ambition than by imperious necessity, into this onward [movement] where the greatest difficulty is to know where to stop.”

Soon the British understood what Gorchakov’s memorandum meant. Czar Alexander II began a massive campaign of conquest in Central Asia. As with the Crimean War, tensions between England and Russia contributed to a war scare in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78.

Throughout the 19th century, Russian foreign policy vacillated between seeking empire in Central Asia and desiring to expand into the Balkans. Thus in 1877 the Russians invaded the Ottoman territory in the Balkans, which would ultimately lead to the establishment of an independent, pro-Russian Slavic Bulgaria.

However, when it seemed that the armies of Alexander II would continue on until they conquered the Turkish capital of Constantinople, British prime minister William Gladstone threatened to intervene on the side of Turkey.

When events seemed to be leading to a general European war, the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck called all the parties to the Congress of Berlin in 1878, which ultimately provided a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The Russo-Turkish War had immediate repercussions in Central Asia. A Russian mission arrived in Kabul under General Stolietov, supported by the czar and the czar’s governor-general for the Central Asian provinces, General K. von Kaufman.

The same scenario repeated itself as in 1839. With the Congress of Berlin ending a major crisis, the czar had no purpose in creating another crisis in Central Asia, so Stolietov was withdrawn from the Afghan capital.

Nevertheless, the British ruler of India, Robert Bulwer-Lytton, Lord Lytton, the viceroy, prepared for a military invasion of Afghanistan. Lytton was a member of what was known as the Forward Policy school, which, believing war with Russia was certain, was determined to fight it as far from India as possible.

When the ruler of Afghanistan, Amir Sher Ali, refused to permit a British delegation to enter Afghanistan, Lytton’s army crossed the Afghan frontier on November 21, 1878.

After Major-General Frederick Roberts defeated Sher Ali’s effort to stop the British, the Afghans pursued a policy of guerrilla warfare. Sher Ali left the office of amir to his son Yakub Khan, who in May 1879 accepted a British resident, Sir Louis Cavagnari.

In a gesture of peace, Sir Louis Cavagnari entered Kabul in July 1879 with only an escort from the corps of guides, the elite of the British Frontier troops. In September, Afghan troops attacked the residency and killed Cavagnari, most likely acting on orders from Yakub Khan.

Retribution soon followed. In October 1878 General Roberts consolidated the British position in Kabul and defeated Yakub Khan’s men. A second skirmish led to his final victory over Yakub Khan on September 1, 1880.

Second Anglo-Afghan war
Second Anglo-Afghan war

The British could now install Amir Abdur Rahman on the throne, a leader they felt would pursue at least a neutral foreign policy and prevent the Russians from using Afghanistan as a base from which to attack India.

Indeed, the British demonstration of force in Afghanistan may have come none too soon, for unlike in the aftermath of the First Afghan War, this time Russia’s expansion into Central Asia rolled on like a juggernaut.

Even the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in 1881, “in Europe we were hangers-on, whereas to Asia we shall go as masters.... Our civilizing mission in Asia will bribe our spirit and drive us thither.” In 1885 under the new czar Alexander III, the clash Britain had long awaited took place.

A Russian army that had just conquered Merv in Turkestan continued on to occupy the Penjdeh Oasis in Herat— the Afghan buffer for British India had been breached. In Britain, the response was swift. Some £11,000,000 were voted by Parliament for war with Russia, a huge sum in those days.

Given such firm British opposition, the Russian force withdrew from Penjdeh. Taking advantage of the Russian withdrawal, Sir Mortimer Durand drew the Durand Line in 1893, which established the eastern frontier of Afghanistan. Two years later, the British had the Wakhan region added to Afghanistan, no doubt pleasing Abdur Rahman, so that Russian territory would not border India.

The Great Game in Central Asia would continue with both nations attempting to influence Tibet and China, whose province of Xinxiang (Sinkiang) was China’s closest to Central Asia.

However, as the 19th century waned, the British and Russians were both faced by a greater threat in the growing power of the German Empire of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Already, the kaiser had made clear his interest in seeking German influence in the lands of the Ottoman Empire, even entering Jerusalem on horseback in 1898.

In 1907, in the spirit of cooperation brought about in the face of a mutual danger, Britain and Russia peacefully settled a dispute over oil rights in Persia by effectively dividing it into Russian and British spheres of influence. The Great Game had officially come to an end.