Siege of Herat (1838)
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The Siege of Herat (1837-1838) was an unsuccessful attack on the Afghan city of Herat, by the Qajar dynasty of Persia, during the time of the Great Game. The siege ended after neither side gained a clear advantage, the British threatened to take military action and the Russians withdrew their support. Herat was held by Kamran and his vizier Yar Mohammed. The Shah of Persia was Mohammed Shah Qajar. Four Europeans were involved: Sir John McNeill and Eldred Pottinger for the British and Count Simonich and Yan Vitkevich for the Russians.
Before the fall of the Persian Safavid Dynasty, Herat was part of the larger Khorasan area of the greater Persian Empire. In 1747, the Afghan Durrani Empire, broke from Persia during a loya jirga (grand council). After a few decades of chaos, Iran was reunited by the Qajars, who made an effort to reconquer Afghanistan. Starting in 1816, Qajar Dynasty managed to capture Herat, but retreated afterwards as there was no military advantage.
In August 1837, Eldred Pottinger (an Anglo-Indian explorer, diplomat and officer of the Bengal Artillery) entered Herat in disguise. At this time, Herat was officially held by a Sadozai man named Kamran, though his vizier Yar Mohammed exercised the real political power. Soon there were rumors that a large Persian force, led by the Shah with Russian advisors, was advancing on Herat. Kamran hurried back to his capital and began strengthening its defenses. Pottinger presented himself to Kamran's Vizier, Yar Mohammed, and was accepted as an adviser.
The siege began in November 1837 when the new Shah, Mohammed Mirza, arrived before Herat. His intention was to take Herat then move on to Kandahar. With him was the Russian Envoy Count Simonich, seconded Russian officers and a regiment of Russian deserters under the Polish general Berowski. Pottinger stiffened the defences of Herat and despite the presence of the Russian advisers the siege lasted eight months.
Fighting was barbaric. Yar Mohammed paid for Persian heads, which were displayed on the ramparts. Pottinger thought this counter-productive since soldiers would stop to cut off heads rather than pursue the enemy. Around the New Year the Persians brought up a huge 8-inch cannon which fired half a dozen times and then collapsed. By January the Persian force reached 40,000 men, but the ring around the city was not complete. Fighting dragged on into the spring and early summer with neither side gaining an advantage.
In April 1838 both John McNeill (a British diplomat) and Count Simonich (a Russian adviser) arrived at the Shah's camp and worked at cross purposes. At one point McNeill threatened the Shah with war if Herat were taken. He persuaded the Shah to cancel a planned assault, doing this deliberately to reduce the morale of the Persian troops. By March or April 1838 Saint Petersburg had become concerned of a possible British reaction and decided to recall Simonich, but communications were so slow that the message did not reach Herat until June. McNeill reported that the Persian troops were suffering and that the siege would have to be abandoned if the supply situation did not improve. The besieged were also in difficulties. At one point 600 elderly men, women and children were driven out of the city to save food. They were fired on by both sides until the Persians let them pass.
By June 7, 1838, Count Simonich had gained such influence with the Shah that McNeill felt forced to return to Teheran. Simonich cast aside his diplomatic role and took over management of the siege. When Simonich received word of his recall on June 22, his response was to order an immediate assault on the city. On June 24, 1838 the Persians attacked at five points but they only managed to breach the wall at the southeast corner. Fighting ebbed back and forth for an hour. According to Kaye both Pottinger and Yar Mohammed were at the breach encouraging the troops. When Yar Mohammed began to lose courage Pottinger physically drove him forward. Yar Mohammed then rushed like a madman to the hindmost troops and the whole body poured out of the breach and drove the Persians away from the wall.
Meanwhile the British government took action. Realising the impracticality of sending a force across Afghanistan they sent a naval expedition to the Persian Gulf and on June 19, 1838 occupied Kharg Island. McNeill, who had returned to Teheran, sent Charles Stoddart to the Persian camp with a threatening message (August 11, 1838). The Shah backed down and on September 9 the siege was lifted. Under British pressure the Russians recalled both Count Simonich and Yan Vitkevich claiming that both had exceeded their instructions.
After the siege
The day after the Shah left Herat, orders were given to the Indian Army to assemble for an invasion which led to the First Anglo-Afghan War. The Russians responded to their loss of face with an attempted invasion of Khiva. In 1856, the British used the same method to reverse a Persian capture of Herat (Anglo-Persian War). In 1863, Herat was captured by Afghanistan. In 1885, the British prevented a Russian move south to Herat (Pandjeh Incident).
A heroic version of Pottinger's activities comes from "History of the War in Afghanistan" by Sir John William Kaye, based on Pottinger's diary. The diary was destroyed by a fire in Kaye's study, so the account cannot be verified. Pottinger's official report appears to have been more modest.
- Izydor Borowski, Polish commander of the Iranian forces
- Peter Hopkirk, "The Great Game", 1990, chapter 14
- John Carl Nelson "The Siege of Herat", St. Cloud State University, May 1976.