The First Anglo–Afghan War lasted from 1839 to 1842. It is one of the most infamous defeats in British history…
In 1839, when England sent an army into Afghanistan to depose the Amir Dost Mohammad Khan and install a former ruler, Shah Shuja, the veteran General William Elphinstone was placed in command of the British garrison in Kabul, numbering around 16-17,000 (most of whom were East India Company troops). Elphinstone was elderly, he was playing out the string at the end of a long career, and he proved himself utterly incompetent for the post.
As time wore on, violence targeting British administrators and their families increased in frequency. Then in 1841 the situation suddenly escalated when Afghans rose up violently in Kabul. Mohammad Akbar Khan, the son of Dost Mohammad Khan, was the leader of the Afghan resistance. Under siege, Elphinstone’s troops were forced from the security of the Bala Hissar citadel to hastily constructed, badly planned, bivouacs on the city outskirts (pictured above). Problems of communication and of tribal hostility were exacerbated by the onset of the severe Afghan winter. On new years day, 1842, an agreement was reached that supposedly guaranteed the safe exodus of the besieged British and their dependents from Afghanistan. Five days later, the march back to India began for Elphinstone and his charges.
The British retreat from Kabul commenced on January 6, 1842. Snow had been falling steadily for nearly 3 weeks. The 4,500 British troops and 12,000 camp followers set off through horrid conditions on what they thought would be an unopposed passage to Jalalabad ninety miles away in British India. Most knew from the outset that traversing the Afghan mountain passes in winter with little food would be deadly. Hundreds fell on the first day alone from the cold. After making scant progress, the jumbled mass of refugees was forced to spend the first of several brutal nights camped in the snow.
On the second morning the situation deteriorated rapidly when Afghans, from the Ghilzais tribe, began to appear. After shadowing the refugees from a distance for awhile, they suddenly attacked. The 44th regiment held them off for a time but eventually buckled. The rebels then inflicted heavy casualties with their swords. Soldiers, along with helpless men and women lay dead all about. The rebels finally retreated leaving the dazed survivors to endure a second freezing night in the open.
The following daybreak found the ragged marchers exhausted and slow to get moving. Even worse, a crowd of Afghans had assembled across the pass and were assuming a threatening posture. As the procession moved further up into the Khoord-Kabul pass they began to get a glimpse of their impending doom when they spotted thousands of Ghilzais lining the heights above. The column had no place to go but forward. The tribesmen waited until the mass was fully into the pass—and then they opened fire. A fierce, bloody, pitch battle followed that left nearly 3,000 marchers dead.
On Sunday, Elphinstone ordered a day of rest. They were left alone, but they were clearly in trouble. Monday morning saw the remainder of the force move out, looking increasingly like a funeral procession– nearly all were so frostbitten that they could no longer pull the triggers on their guns. For most it would be their last day on earth. Just up the road the rebels lay in waiting in a gorge. It didn’t take long for them to decimate most of what remained of the ravaged pack. Both sides of the mountain stream were littered with the dead. The Ghilzais lined the heights, celebrating the massacre.
Somehow, after all of this, a group, including Elphinstone, made it through to survive another disastrous day. In an act of desperation the British tried to sneak out at night, but it failed as the tribesman weren’t fooled. Another pitch battle ensued as the valiant Brits kept fighting forward. They fought their way to the next pass only to be confronted with yet another dismaying obstacle—the Afghans had blocked their way with a giant barricade of prickly holly-oak branches. The column stalled. It was the end. The final battle was brief but decisive. Almost no one survived.
Apart from a few officers and non-combatants saved by being taken prisoner, of the 16,000 who set out from Kabul, only one, Dr William Brydon, reached Jalalabad alive. The arrival of Brydon prompted the British garrison there to light beacon fires to guide in other survivors from Elphinstone’s column. After several days it became apparent that Dr. Brydon was the only one to get through. Many writers have since speculated that Brydon was allowed to pass in order to recount the tale of horror to the British, as a warning not to retaliate.
An ‘Army of Retribution’ was dispatched from India nonetheless. After relieving Jalalabad it marched on Kabul, where it was joined by more British led forces from Kandahar. The army was able to rescue some British prisoners and hostages left behind in Kabul, and the Great Bazaar of Kabul was razed as an act of revenge. But in the end, in spite of efforts to create an impression of triumph, British prestige had been severely damaged.
The moral of the story: It’s easier to get in than to get out.
Stephen Tanner. Afghanistan: A military history. Cambridge, Mass. 2002