In 1876, George Armstrong Custer and some 268 some members of the US 7th cavalry were “massacred” in battle against native Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in the valley of the Little Bighorn River. This signal, but ultimately meaningless defeat of a “modern” military force by technologically inferior tribal forces is almost universally known in America; thanks to countless books and not a few films that deal with the subject.
What is almost universally forgotten is the far greater and more politically significant destruction of a much larger British Army just 34 years earlier; by Afghan tribesman in the snowbound passes of Eastern Afghanistan.
The First Afghan War (1839-1842) is best understood in context of the so-called “Great Game”: the contest for influence in Central Asia between the Russian Empire and Great Britain. India, the "Jewel in the Crown" of the British Empire, was governed from Calcutta by the East India Company (colloquial known as "John Company"); and garrisoned by an army of largely British-led native troops, called Sepoys (from a Turkic/Persian term for professional soldier, Sipahi). These Sepoy regiments supported a core of British regiments; both "John Company" troops and “Queen’s Regiments” of the regular British Army.
The great fear among Britain's leaders was of a Russian invasion of the Indian Sub-continent. With reinforcement from England half-a-year’s journey by sea from India, an invasion in force by Russian forces based in Central Asia had every chance of prying the "Jewel in the Crown" from Britain's grasp.
To invade India from their dominions in Central Asia, the Czar's forces would need to transit through independent Afghanistan. In 1838 Russia's ally, the Shah of Persia, laid siege to the western Afghan city of Herat. This caused ripples of fear within government circles in Calcutta, that this was the prelude to just such an invasion. The Kingdom of Afghanistan at that time was ruled by Shah Dost Mohammed of the Durrani dynasty. For a variety of (irrational) reasons, it was felt that Dost Mohammed should be replaced with a ruler more pliable to British interests. The British Governor General of India, Lord Auckland, decided that the deposed and aged former ruler of Afghanistan, Shuja Shah Durrani, would be restored by armed force to his lost throne in Kabul; as a British client-ruler.
The stage was thus set for the First Afghan War.
MARCH ON KABUL
In the early months of 1839 an East India Company army of 20,500 men, commanded by Sir John Keane (a veteran of the Peninsula War and the Battle of New Orleans), invaded Afghanistan. The British entered the country through the Bolan Pass, initially meeting no resistance. Once in Afghanistan, they marched north toward Kabul, Dost Mohammed's capital. The “John Company” troops proved irresistible; storming the “impregnable” fortress of Gazni; the Medieval capital of the 11th century conqueror, Mohammed of Gazni. Marching on Kabul, Dost Mohammed fled and the British captured the city.
The Afghans were overawed; impressed by the seeming unbeatable British forces. Shuja Shah was installed within the massive walls of the Bala Hissar, Kabul's Medieval fortress; and after temporarily escaping, Dost Mohammed was captured and taken back as a “guest” of the British Raj in India.
With Shuja Shah in place, the war seemed over, a complete and nearly bloodless British victory. With the “mission accomplished”, the majority of the British forces withdrew back to India. To keep order in the country and forestall Russian invasion, garrisons were established at Kandahar, Gazni, Jalalabad, and, primarily, in unfortified cantonments outside of Kabul. In total, only 8,000 troops were left to hold down the entire country.
Unfortunately for British fortunes, the main force of some 4 Brigades at Kabul was placed under the command of one of history’s most ineffectual generals: Major General Sir William George Keith Elphinstone.
Known as “Elphy Bey” by the Sepoy troops under his command, Elphinstone was a veteran of Waterloo, where he had commanded a battalion of foot. By the time he was assigned to command the Kabul garrison, he was a Companion of the Bath and former aide-de-camp to King George IV. Sadly, he was also a doddering 60 years old; and by his own admission, not fit for command.
He was not only old, he was also perpetually ill. Beyond that, he was a man who seemed at every turn incapable of making a decision; and vacillated constantly between one option and another. To make matters even worse, he was jealous of his younger subordinates and refused to delegate decisions to them.
It was a myopic appointment, leaving command of an army in what was one of the most dangerous countries in the world to a dithering old man. Disaster was soon to follow, and the blame rests clearly on the frail shoulders of Elphinstone and those who appointed him.
The late historical fiction writer, George McDonald Frasier, through the mouth of his creation, that incomparable rascal Harry Paget Flashman, sums up Elphinstone’s contribution to what followed thus:
“Let me say that when I talk of disasters I speak with authority. I have served at Balaclava, Cawnpore, and Little Big Horn. Name the biggest born fools who wore uniform in the nineteenth-century – Cardigan, Sale, Custer, Raglan, Lucan – I knew them all. Think of all the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice and sheer bad luck, and I’ll give you chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgment – in short, for the true talent for catastrophe – Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.
“Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War (to spiral out of control) and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganized enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision; and managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, wrought out of order complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.”
An excellent assessment of the incompetent General Lord Elphinstone!
With the British occupation forces reduced, and with the Afghans becoming familiar with their occupiers (and with familiarity came contempt), trouble soon began.
It started with minor incidents in the distant hills, where tribesmen began sniping at isolated British garrisons and columns. In Spring of 1841, despite these signs of simmering discontent among the tribes; and following the misguided advice of the British Emissary in Kabul, Sir William Hay Macnaghten (who as Lord Auckland’s senior aid had been the principal architect of Britain’s Afghan involvement), the Government in Calcutta further reduced not only the garrison strength in Kabul from 4 to 2 brigades; but at the same time reduced the subsidies (i.e., bribes) paid to the tribes in the hills to keep open the vital passes connecting the British forces to their base in India.
The result was predictable. Taking insult, the tribes rose in rebellion, immediately closing the passes to India. One of the withdrawing Brigades, under General Robert (“Fighting Bob”) Sale, in route though the passes back to India, found itself under attack; and had to fight its way out of Afghanistan.
On November 2, a mob rose in Kabul and stormed the house of the British political Agent in Kabul, Sir Alexander Burnes, murdering him and his younger brother, Charlie. Their mutilated bodies were hung from meat hooks in the city’s bazaar. Elphinstone, with an army only 1.5 miles outside the city, could decide on no course of action in response. The troops, though furious, remained idle in their cantonment. This inaction was taken for weakness by the Afghans, and only fanned the flames of revolt.
By mid-November, the British found themselves under virtual siege in their lightly defended camp; with Afghan snipers firing into the cantonments from the surrounding high ground. On November 23, a large force of Afghans occupied the Beymaroo Heights, overlooking the British cantonments; laying down a deadly fire from Jezails (the ubiquitous Afghan long musket or rifle) and from a pair of guns. An attempt to drive the Afghans off the heights by the single British regiment on scene, the 44th Regiment of foot, failed dismally; leaving the watching Sepoys utterly disheartened. (One account states that when charged by Afghan horsemen from atop the heights, the 44th responded with a massive volley of musketry. So old and inaccurate were their Brown Bess Muskets that when the smoke cleared, not a single Afghan had been hit! Astonished and demoralized, the regiment broke and was pursued back to the safety of the camp by whooping Afghan horsemen.)
Other attempts were made to drive the harassing Afghans from the high ground around the cantonments, with no success. In none of these engagements did Elphinstone show the least initiative; not even supporting his Second-in-Command, Brigadier Shelton, in his efforts on the Beymaroo Heights.
Elphinstone sent for reinforcements from Kandahar to the south, but the snows of winter had closed the southern passes. Sale’s Brigade had reached Jalalabad, after weeks of fighting; and were unwilling to come back through the blood-stained passes they had just traversed. At this moment the situation worsened for Elphy Bey and the British at Kabul with the arrival on the scene of Akbar Khan, Dost Mohammed’s deceitful but charismatic and capable son. Possessed of great charm and some degree of military ability, Akbar Khan soon became the rallying point and leader for the anti-British/anti-Shuja forces.
At the instigation of Akbar Khan, peace talks were initiated. Macnaghten and an escort of British officers met the young Afghan prince outside the cantonments. Arriving at the designated location, an open meadow beside the river, the British party found a carpet spread and Akbar waiting with a small band of warriors.
The British reined-up, but had no sooner dismounted to greet the Afghans than Sir William was seized and murdered; along with several of the officers of his escort. Thus ended the less-than-illustrious career and life of William Hay Macnaghten, the man whose foolishness had done much to create the disaster unfolding at Kabul.
Again, as when Burns was murdered, Elphinstone did nothing but dither.
Finally, in late December, negotiations were renewed. With troop morale in complete collapse, and his subordinate officers incapable of agreeing on a course of positive action, Elphinstone accepted Akbar Khan’s offer of safe conduct for the British army out of Kabul, back to India.
DISASTER IN THE PASSES
The retreat from Kabul started on January 6, 1842. Elphinstone's army at this point consisted of the one British infantry battalion, the 44th Regiment of Foot; three Sepoy regiments of regular Bengal Native Infantry; one regiment of Afghans loyal to Shah Shujah's (who was retreating out of Afghanistan along with his patrons); two regiments of Bengal Horse; and six guns of the Bengal Horse Artillery. In total, there were 700 British and 3,800 Indian troops. Including camp followers (mostly the families of the soldiers, British and Indian), 16,000 souls set out under the nominal leadership of Elphy Bey for Jalalabad, some 140 km away.
Between them and safety lay 85 miles of high mountains and icy cold, snow-bound passes.
With the 44th forming the vanguard, the column set off with some attempt at military order. But encumbered by 12,000 cold and terrified camp followers and 2,000 camels and other animals loaded with stores and baggage, the column moved at a snail’s pace.
Despite Akbar Khan’s guarantees of safe passage, the rear guard of the column had not yet departed the cantonments when bands of Afghan horsemen descended upon them with sword. The stores of supplies meant to feed the column on the march were lost, before the British had even gotten free of the cantonments. Any stragglers were cut down by the Afghan horsemen; who hovered at the rear and flanks of the column like packs of hungry wolves. The British sick, which had been left behind under pledges of protection, were butchered in their tents.
Though it was militarily necessary for an advance force to push through the first of the great passes ahead, the looming Khord-Kabul Pass, that first day; Elphinstone instead chose to stop at 2 pm and make a cold camp, stopping for the night just 6 miles outside Kabul. Without tents or food, the army shivered all night long in the snow.
The next day was wasted in negotiations with Akbar, who continued to promise food and firewood, as well as escort; none of which appeared. Instead, Afghan tribesmen sniped continuously from the heights above, which the British failed to picket in advance. Occasionally, bodies of Afghan horsemen would savage the column, cutting down the shivering and miserable fugitives.
The British soldiers time-and-again sallied forth with bayonet to drive marauding Afghans from the way; or to protect women and children. But at every turn, their efforts were hampered by the narrowness of the terrain (in places the passes were only yards wide and the cliffs thousands of feet high); and by the throngs of terrified and stampeding non-combatants.
This was the pattern that would continue for the next five days, as the Army of Kabul slowly died in the snow. Each morning those strong enough to go on rose out of the snow that had covered them in the night, and trundled along on bloody and frozen feet. Like sheep, the non-combatants would at times break into panicked flight, as harassing Afghan cavalry galloped among them, slashing and killing with wicked sharp blades...
At one point, Akbar demanded that Elphinstone and the senior non-combatants (such as General Sale’s wife, the equally formidable Lady Sale) be handed over to his “protection”; and to the shame of the British Army, Elphy Bey and his senior officers surrendered themselves while their troops pushed on without them.
The bottleneck passes of the Khord-Kabul, the Huft Kotul, the Tezeen, and the Jugdulluk were scenes of unspeakable nightmare; as women and children were butchered and left in piles. The Sepoys were particularly affected by the cold (many had no shoes); and in the end merely huddled like sheep, waiting for the butcher’s knife to put them out of their misery.
In this last pass, Jugdulluk, the Army of Kabul finally died. In this grim, mountain-shadowed place the Afghans blocked the way with logs of prickly holly-oak. The soldiers tore at the sharp spiny branches with bloody hands, to clear the way; all the while the Afghans poured deadly fire from the heights above. With scimitar in hand, tribesmen rushed down on the column, butchering the defenseless women and children. Finally, the few surviving men of the 44th fought through the blockage and gained the relative safety beyond. Of the 4,500 soldiers Elphinstone had departed Kabul with just 6 days earlier, only twenty officers and forty-five soldiers survived the Jugdulluk massacre.
These surviving scarecrows reached the village of Gandamack on the 13th of January. At first the villagers came out to greet them and engaged in seemingly friendly conversation. But they soon attempted to seize the soldier’s muskets from their hands. Driving them fiercely away, the British sealed their doom.
They were surrounded on a hillock by gathering villagers. When called to surrender, one British sergeant gave the famous answer, "Not bloody likely!"
The Afghans swarmed about, shooting the soldiers down at their leisure; then rushed in with sword. Only a bare 6 men of Elphinstone’s army survived to be taken prisoner.
At Jalalabad, General Sale’s Brigade, ignorant of what was befalling their comrades in the passes, waited for the army to arrive. At last a lone horseman, an army surgeon named Dr. William Brydon, rode up to the gates. Asked where the Army of Kabul was, he replied: “I am the Army”!
The First Afghan War didn’t end there. The British returned that summer and exacted bloody revenge on the populace of Kabul, destroying much of the city in the process. They relieved their remaining garrisons; and the hostages and prisoners were returned, including Lady Sale. Elphinstone died in captivity, his last words reportedly being, “‘It really is too bad.”
Then, Britain’s policy having changed, they withdrew from the country altogether; leaving Dost Mohammed once more on his throne. The disaster was forgotten by many in the years that followed. But it was not without lasting consequences.
Before Afghanistan, the British and John Company’s army had an almost mythical reputation, an aura of invincibility. After The Retreat, that myth was forever shattered. Following Kabul, the Sikhs of the Punjab, a strong military state, lost their fear of Britain’s displeasure. The bloody Anglo-Sikh Wars would follow just a few years after Kabul; and just a few years after these, the Great Mutiny would shake the Empire to its core.
Blame for the disaster must be placed squarely upon the foolish appointment of one frail, dithering old man to command an army on deadly ground. But a lesson from today can also be drawn here: In the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, where every tribal male was a marksman and a warrior; where tribes fight each other constantly, only uniting to eject foreigners; no effort to modernize and "nation build" by an outside power has any chance to succeed. The Afghans are best left to their own devices, a good buffer state but an impossible vassal.
1. Macrory, Patrick: The Fierce Pawns; J.B. Lippincott Co., 1966; P. 208. The author is working off of the first-hand accounts of eye witnesses.