Officers of H.M. 51st Regiment on Sultan Tarra, showing different service uniforms worn.
Photographer: Burke, John
Medium: Photographic print
Photograph of men of the 51st King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry near Ali Masjid in the Khyber Pass, taken by John Burke in 1878. John Burke accompanied the Peshawar Valley Field Force, one of three British Anglo-Indian army columns deployed in the Second Afghan War (1878-80), despite being rejected for the role of official photographer. He financed his trip by advance sales of his photographs 'illustrating the advance from Attock to Jellalabad'. Coming to India as apothecary with the Royal Engineers, Burke turned professional photographer, assisting William Baker. Travelling widely in India, they were the main rivals to the better-known Bourne and Shepherd. Burke's two-year Afghan expedition produced an important visual document of the region where strategies of the Great Game were played out.
The Anglo-Russian rivalry (called the Great Game) precipitated the Second Afghan War. Afghanistan was of strategic importance to the British in the defence of their Indian Empire, and the prevention of the spreading influence of Russia. They favoured a Forward Policy of extending India's frontiers to the Hindu Kush and gaining control over Afghanistan. An opportunity presented itself when the Amir Sher Ali turned away a British mission while a Russian mission was visiting his court at Kabul. The British had demanded a permanent mission at Kabul which Sher Ali, trying to keep a balance between the Russians and British, would not permit.
British suspicions of the Amir's perceived susceptibility to the Russians led them to invade Afghanistan.
Of the three columns moving simultaneously into three approaches into Afghanistan, the Peshawar Valley Field Force, led by Lt. General Samuel Browne, was the largest. Its aim was to take the fort of Ali Masjid and thus the Khyber Pass. Just south of Browne was the smallest of the three field forces, the Kurram Valley Field Force led by Maj. General Frederick Sleigh Roberts and gathered at Thal, whose aim was to clear the Kurram valley passes which also provided access to Kabul. The third was the Kandahar Valley Field Force, led by Lt. General Stewart, who had the difficult task of holding the Bolan Pass and Kandahar city. General Browne's tactic was to split his forces into a further three columns. One would advance up the Khyber Valley, and the other two would go up the parallel Lashora valley and occupy the heights above and behind the fortress of Ali Masjid. Brig. General W. Browne commanded the Fourth Infantry Brigade of the Peshawar Valley Field Force, composed of troops of the 51st King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 6th Jat Light Infantry and the 45th Sikhs.