The Retreat from Kabul: A Lesson from History

The rugged, wild, and inhospitable landscape of Afghanistan served as the backdrop to the global ambitions of two great Imperial powers, Britain and Russia. For the British it was a weak point, a means of access for foreign powers into the Indian Raj, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire. For the Russians it offered the opportunity to undermine the British and supplant them as the dominant power in the region.

So they duelled with one another in what became known as the "Great Game."

Affairs on the Indian sub-Continent were run by the East India Company as a private fiefdom on behalf of the British Government and so rapid had been their conquest of India that they were felt by many in the country to be militarily omnipotent but they feared the increasing Russian influence in Afghanistan and their encroachment into India through the Khyber Pass.

In March 1839 the British Governor Lord Auckland dispatched a British army to Afghanistan with the aim of achieving what we would refer to now as regime change. He was determined to replace the pro-Russian Ameer of Kabul, Dost Mohammed with the friendly Shah Shujar.

Although the Afghans were recognised as a warrior people it was a tribal society which pitted one against another and they were considered little better than bandits. Few believed that they could resist the might of a disciplined British Army and as such, a degree of hubris dominated the planning of the operation. Little thought had gone into what any military campaign in Afghanistan might entail and the army was under strength, inadequately equipped, and poorly led.

It was also not a good time to begin the incursion, spring had not yet arrived and the weather was inclement, snow lay upon the ground, the cold was debilitating, and the march was exhausting with the journey from Kandahar to Kabul being particularly perilous as they were constantly harassed and sniped at from the surrounding hills by Afghan tribesmen.

Upon reaching Kabul Dost Mohammed fled without a fight and Shah Shujar was installed as the new Ameer though the real power remained in the hands of the British Viceroy Sir William McNaughten.

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It appeared that the operation had been a complete success and McNaughten was privately delighted to discover that the Afghans willingly accepted British largesse and many local warlords and tribal leaders were quickly bribed into compliance. Where corruption was seen to fail the British did not prove shy of using their military muscle.

For the first eighteen months everything seemed to be going according to plan but an element of complacency had set in as the British began to settle into a lifestyle that was not dissimilar to the one they lived in the Raj itself.

The Officers invited their families to join them, a racecourse was built, and Christian places of worship began to spring up around the capital. But Shah Shujar's remit did not run much outside the confines of Kabul itself and in the countryside there was a growing resentment to the presence of the foreigner imposing their ways and inflicting their religion upon them. But on the surface at least things appeared calm.

The extreme heat of the summer months and the ferocious Afghan winter ensured that the British troops remained in barracks for much of the time and as a result they appeared to have little inkling of the intensity of hatred that was developing towards them. Indeed, such was the complacency that during the summer months Sir William McNaughten and Shah Shujar departed Kabul altogether for the gentler climate of Jellalabad.

As spring the British supply columns once again began to travel through the Khyber Pass but this time they came under repeated attack from Ghizali tribesmen and in the summer of 1840, Major-General William George Elphinstone was appointed British Military Commander in Afghanistan.

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General Elphinstone was sixty years old, lame and in poor health. He had last seen combat at the Battle of Waterloo 25 years earlier and should have retired long ago. He was weak, muddled in his thinking, indecisive, and totally unfit to command an army. But then no one really expected him to have to do much.

The British throughout 1840 and 1841 seemed oblivious to the trouble that was brewing and never did comprehend the deep opprobrium in which they were held. Elphinstone in particular seemed not to have any grasp of the situation or any understanding of the kind of people he was dealing with.

He had at his command 4,500 British and 3,850 Indian troops, a force totally inadequate to the task of subduing or controlling a country the size of Afghanistan. He also had the responsibility of protecting up to 12,000 civilian - wives, mistresses, children, camp followers, and collaborators.

The British in Kabul had effectively bought the support of Afghan leaders with money and lavish gifts but now the East India Company weary of the expense ceased providing the funds to MacNaughten.

It seemed to surprise the British that without payment the Afghans felt no obligation to remain loyal and they were shocked to find their presence unwelcome especially when Churches were attacked and Europeans stoned in the streets. MacNaughten dismissed such incidences as trivial declaring that the Afghans would always grumble a little when their palms weren’t being greased.

Tensions in Kabul reached boiling point when a mob attacked the home of the British Representative Sir Alexander Burnes murdering him and all his staff. The British were shocked by the level of violence but Elphinstone other than express his horror did nothing.

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Later that same day Akbar Khan, the son of the deposed Dost Mohammed, sensing Elphinstone's indecisiveness announced that he would drive the foreigner from Afghan soil declaring Jihad or Holy War. Even now, Elphinstone failed to take decisive action.

On 23 December 1841, Sir William McNaughten and several of his Afghan allies were lured to a house for a discussion with tribal elders. He had been advised not to attend as his bodyguard had failed to turn up but he felt he had a good relationship with these people and had little to fear but upon their arrival he and the others were surrounded, dragged from their horses, and slaughtered.

Following the attack Akbar Khan went into hiding expecting swift retaliation from the British but when none came he ordered his men to open fire on their cantonments from the hills surrounding Kabul.

Despite the rising tensions no real effort had been made to fortify the cantonments but they did offer a semblance of security, for the time being at least.

A series of half-hearted forays into the hills to disperse the rebels were easily repulsed and Elphinstone now decided that his best option was to try and negotiate his way out of an increasingly difficult situation.

He informed Akbar Khan that he would be willing to evacuate all British troops and Europeans from Kabul and withdraw to India in return for a guarantee of safe passage. Akbar Khan agreed but only if the British left their artillery behind along with a number of Officers to serve as hostages against a British return. Elphinstone consented to these demands.

On 6 January 1842, in the midst of a snowstorm the British Column, 16,500 strong, marched out of Kabul. Their destination was the British garrison at Jalalabad some 90 miles away.

The Column was attacked almost from the moment it left the comparative safety of the cantonments and was to advance only six miles on the first day. The Column also had no tents and they were unable to shelter from the freezing cold and people soon began to die of hypothermia. A few, already fearing the worst, took their own lives.

As soon as the march resumed the following morning the attacks began again. Brigadier Shelton, in command of the rearguard led a series of counter-attacks in the hope of buying time for the Column but they made little difference.

When the Column reached the village of Boothak, Akbar Khan agreed to meet with Elphinstone to discuss the problems it was encountering.

Akbar Khan was emollient and apologised for the attacks declaring they were the result of a few rebels who would soon be brought under control but he also said that the anger of his people was such he needed more with which to placate them. He reassured the General all attacks would cease if only certain conditions were met.

First he extorted a large sum of money and then insisted that the British Officers and their wives must give themselves up as hostages, and that the garrisons at Jalalabad and Kandahar must also withdraw back to India.

Elphinstone agreed to the terms set out but it was only with great difficulty that the women could be convinced to surrender themselves to Akbar Khan's care, and with good cause for although the British women were kept safe their Indian servants and the wives of Indian Subalterns he had killed.

But there was to be no end to the attacks and when the following day the Column reached a narrow gorge known as the Khoord Cabul Pass the Afghan tribesmen rained down a hail of fire from the heights that dominated it on either side and the Column was caught in a deadly crossfire that left more than 3,000 in the gorge with those not already dead being finished off with knives.

On the night of 11 January, Akbar Khan sent emissaries to persuade General Elphinstone and his Second-in-Command Brigadier Shelton to surrender themselves up as hostages. If they did so it would be the final guarantor of safe conduct.

Both Elphinstone and Shelton knew by now that Akbar Khan’s word stood for nothing but by giving themselves up they hoped to save their own skins. It was an unforgivable betrayal abandoning their troops and those civilians under their care to save their own lives.

The poisoned chalice of command now fell to Brigadier Thomas John Anquetil, who did his best in impossible circumstances.

Later that night the troops leading the Column found their passage blocked by a barricade of entangled thorn bushes. Surrounded by Ghizali tribesmen the British troops charged again and again to try and force a way through but they found it an impenetrable obstruction. In desperation, Anquetil personally led an advance by British and Indian troops he hoped would lure the tribesmen away from the Column but with barely 200 exhausted, half-starved men there was little hope of success and after some initial progress the British were ambushed in the Jagdalak Pass and Anquetil was killed.

The Afghans now descended on what remained of the undefended Column and the final massacre, mostly of women, children, and elderly servants began.

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A last stand was made of the troops who had survived the ambush in the Jagdalak Pass at Gandamark early in the morning of 13 January where in driving snow 20 Officers and 48 men of the 44th Regiment of Foot formed an impromptu square atop a small hillock where the Afghan tribesmen tried to persuade them to surrender, but the British had by now learned their lesson. They fought onto the end.

At the last moment six mounted Officers did manage to break out but of these five were quickly cut down.

In the late evening of 13 January 1842 as twilight descended, the garrison at Jalalabad which had been awaiting the arrival of the Column saw a lone bedraggled man on an exhausted horse. The lone rider was the Army Surgeon Dr William Brydon. When he was asked "Where is the Column?" he replied, "I am the Column."

Dr Brydon was the sole survivor of the 16,500 men, women, and children, who had set off from Kabul just 7 days earlier. Upon being informed of the disaster Lord Auckland had a stroke.

General Elphinstone died in captivity of disease in April, 1842 the same month that Shah Shujar was assassinated.

In the autumn of 1842, a British Army of Retribution invaded Afghanistan and upon reaching Kabul they rescued 32 Officers, 50 men, 21 children and 12 women. Those Indian troops who had survived and in desperation made their way back to Kabul had been hunted down and either killed or sold into slavery.

Once the hostages had been released the British proceeded to raise Kabul to the ground but they did not remain in Afghanistan.

Akbar Khan, the victor of the First Anglo-Afghan War died less than a year later, probably murdered by his father Dost Mohammed who with the British vanquished and his rivals dead was restored as Ameer.

The annihilation of a British Army by Afghan tribesmen damaged their reputation for invincibility and was to have serious consequences acting as a spur to rebellion in the Indian Mutiny fifteen years later.

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