Military history



The First Anglo-Afghan War, 1838–1842

THEY BEGAN MARCHING at 9 a.m. on January 6, 1842. The snow outside Kabul was already “ankle deep.” From the start the stench of defeat wafted like a foul aroma over the 4,500 Anglo-Indian troops and 12,000 camp followers, including many women and children. There was no order to the march, and camp followers, pack animals (including a large number of camels), and baggage were hopelessly mixed up together. “Dreary indeed was the scene over which, with drooping spirits and dismal forebodings, we had to bend our unwilling steps,” wrote Lieutenant Vincent Eyre.

While still in Kabul the British had been penned into their cantonment, their provisions running out, because of incessant attack from angry hordes of Afghans. They decided they had no choice but to march back to India. The Afghan leaders promised to let them go. But it soon became clear they had no intention of honoring their commitments. As the rear guard left Kabul around dusk on January 6, Afghans set fire to the cantonment. “The conflagration illuminated the surrounding country for several miles, presenting a spectacle of fearful sublimity,” Eyre wrote. Meanwhile other Afghans were sniping at the column with their long-range jezail rifle, “under which many fell.” Because of these attacks and sheer disorganization, the column advanced at a crawl and lost most of its baggage. Having covered just six miles, the refugees halted at 4 p.m. to make camp. There were hardly any tents or provisions. Tired soldiers and civilians alike sank down into the snow, and many died on the spot. Others froze overnight; their frostbitten legs “looked like charred logs of wood.”

The next day offered no relief. Lady Florentia Sale, a brigadier’s wife, noted in her diary, “The force was perfectly disorganized, nearly every man paralyzed with cold, so as to be scarcely able to hold his musket or move. Many frozen corpses lay on the ground. . . . The ground was strewn with boxes of ammunition, plate, and property of various kinds. . . . The enemy soon assembled in great numbers. Had they made a dash at us, we could have offered no resistance, and all would have been massacred.”

Make a dash? That was not the tribal way. Why risk a frontal battle with a still-potent force when it was possible to let the elements do their work and pick off the stragglers one by one? The Afghans, like all raiders everywhere, could detect weakness from miles away. They knew they could take their time in picking apart the feringees (foreigners). The foreigners, for their part, must have occasionally wondered, as they desperately struggled for survival, how they had gotten into this mess in the first place.70

BRITISH INTEREST IN Afghanistan was sparked by the worrisome proximity of Russia’s advance in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1838 Lord Auckland, the governor-general of India, feared that Dost Muhammad Khan, the king of Afghanistan, was getting too friendly with the Russians. So he dispatched an expeditionary force to depose the Dost and replace him with Shah Shuja ul-Mulkh, a British client who had been living in exile in India since losing the Afghan throne three decades earlier.

Despite the manifest imperfections in their own society revealed in works such as Oliver Twist (published in 1838), British officials were confident that they were representatives of a superior race with a particular genius for government, and they viewed it as their right to chastise or even replace rulers in distant lands “who,” as Kipling was later to write, “lack the lights that guide us.”71 At almost the same time that the British were invading Afghanistan, they were becoming ensnared in another war on the other side of Asia—the First Opium War (1839–42), fought to open up the Chinese market to British exports, including opium. That conflict was to have a happier ending from the British perspective than the war in Afghanistan. But that was hardly apparent at first, for the invasion of Afghanistan began smoothly—as smoothly as would the Russian invasion nearly a century and a half later and the American invasion two decades after that.

The grandly named Army of the Indus included 15,100 British and Indian soldiers (known as sepoys) and 6,000 mercenaries in Shah Shuja’s employ. They were accompanied by a staggering 38,000 camp followers (servants, storekeepers, prostitutes, and the like) and 30,000 camels to haul a vast array of baggage, including linens, wines, cigars, and other “comforts which remote countries and uncivilized people cannot supply.” Setting off in late 1838, this unwieldy expedition had little trouble as it marched to “Candahar” and from there to “Cabool,” thus confirming British expectations that their armies would have little to fear from supposedly inferior adversaries in the “Orient.” Dost Muhammad abdicated on August 2, 1839, and the British entered the capital shortly thereafter. The Dost would harass the British for the next year before giving up and being sent to exile in India. The only ominous development was the lack of enthusiasm for the country’s new sovereign. A British officer noted that Afghans viewed Shah Shuja’s arrival with “the most mortifying indifference.”

Most of the British troops were soon sent back to India. The rest remained “to hedge in the throne with a quickset of British bayonets.” The danger seemed so minimal that the married officers sent for their families and settled down to the serious business of life—cricket, fishing, hunting, ice skating. But all the while resentment was building among the Afghans who did not appreciate the feringees who romanced their women, traduced their mores, and imposed an unpopular king on them.72

Out of their own ignorance the British inadvertently provided the spark that set this powder keg on fire. Rulers in Kabul had traditionally paid generous “tributes” to the Pashtun tribes to keep traffic flowing through the passes of the Hindu Kush. In October 1841, however, William Macnaghten, the senior British diplomat, decided as a cost-saving measure to slash in half the annual subsidy paid to the Ghilzai tribal confederation. At the same time, also in the interest of parsimony, he decided to send another British brigade back to India. The Ghilzais instantly rose up and closed the Khyber Pass, thereby cutting off Afghanistan from India.

Major General Sir Robert Sale, whose 2,000-strong brigade was being sent home, found himself having to live up to his nickname “Fighting Bob” by fighting for every inch of ground against “ambuscades and plunderers.”73 Sale’s brigade reached the relative safety of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan only on November 15, 1841, after suffering more than 300 casualties.74 The wounded included Sale himself; a jezail bullet had struck his ankle. Once inside Jalalabad, his brigade was surrounded by “a fanatical and infuriated people” (to use Sale’s own words). Sale was unable to leave or help the rest of the British forces in the country, even as he received “melancholy intelligence” of “the basest treachery” transpiring in the capital.75

Back in Kabul, on November 2, 1841, a mob gathered in front of the residency occupied by Sir Alexander Burnes, the second-ranking British diplomat and a well-known explorer. He tried to reason with the enraged Afghans, then to bribe them. Neither worked. He and his brother were cut to pieces along with their entire retinue.76 There were still 4,500 Anglo-Indian troops on the outskirts of the city, and prompt action on their part might have quelled the disturbance. But their commander was anything but energetic. Sir William Elphinstone had seen no action since Waterloo. He looked it too. Fifty-nine years old, he was crippled by gout and exceedingly feeble. Lady Sale complained that “Elphinstone vacillates on every point.”77 Because he was “paralyzed by this sudden outbreak,”78 it spread with disturbing rapidity.

The day after Burnes was murdered, the British commissariat was besieged and a relief force repelled by “concealed marksmen.”79 In the following days, as the troops became “grievously indignant at the imbecility of their leaders,”80 the siege of the British cantonment grew ever tighter. By the end of November, as the rolls of sick and wounded were growing and provisions were running out, the British declared a willingness to pay handsomely for the privilege of a “safe retreat out of the country.”81 In one of their parlays on December 23, the Dost’s son, Muhammad Akbar Khan, tried to seize William Macnaghten, the chief British diplomat. Macnaghten resisted and was shot down with a ceremonial pistol that he had once presented to his host. Soon the rest of the British force would suffer a similar fate.

All the problems encountered by the Kabul garrison at the beginning of their march—bitter cold, lack of supplies, enemy attacks, disorganization—grew worse over the next few days. By January 9, 1842, more than half the force was “frost-bitten or wounded.” That day Akbar Khan offered to take into protective custody the married officers and their wives—a proposal that was eagerly accepted. General Elphinstone and a number of other officers also wound up as captives after venturing out to negotiate with Akbar Khan. In all more than a hundred Britons, including Lady Sale and her married daughter, became hostages. Their capture caused a frenzy in Britain because it tapped into primordial fears of the fate that “civilized” women could expect to suffer at the hands of “savages”; as the historian Linda Colley reminds us, tales of “white slavery” and the harem were never far from European minds in this period when “captivity narratives” of Europeans held by non-Europeans (especially in North Africa, India, and North America) were a popular form of literature.82 But in fact the captives were the lucky ones. Most of them survived. There was no salvation for the “monstrous, unmanageable, jumbling mass,” to cite Lieutenant Eyre’s words, that they left behind.

Their end came in the “dark precipitous defile[s]” of the Hindu Kush. Afghan riflemen were arrayed all along the heights. From there, a British officer wrote, they “poured down an incessant fire on our column.” Three thousand were said to have died in the Khurd–Kabul Pass alone. Another “fearful . . . slaughter” ensued in the Jugdulluk Pass. The tribesmen had barricaded the only exit and made “busy with their cruel knives and their unerring jezails.”

The only Briton to survive the entire march was an assistant surgeon. Wounded and mounted on a dying pony, Dr. William Brydon reached Jalalabad on the afternoon of January 13, 1842—a scene memorialized in a famous Victorian painting, The Remnants of an Army. A few Indian soldiers and camp followers would arrive later, and 105 British prisoners would be rescued eventually. But most of the rest of the force that had left Kabul seven days earlier—16,000 people (including more than 700 Europeans)—had been wiped out. This “stupendous act of fatuity,” as it was dubbed by a nineteenth-century writer, was the greatest single setback suffered by any army fighting guerrillas in the nineteenth century.83

THIS CATASTROPHE DID much to engender Afghanistan’s reputation as the “graveyard of empires.” Yet Afghanistan is far from unconquerable. It was overrun by invaders from Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC to Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century AD and Babur (founder of the Mogul Empire) in the sixteenth century.

In 1842 the British, who still held Kandahar and Jalalabad, set out to retrieve their position by sending the so-called Army of Retribution, eventually numbering fourteen thousand men, marching through the Khyber Pass to erase “the most unmitigated discredit to the British name throughout Asia.”84 Its commander, Major General Sir George Pollock, figured out the importance of placing pickets on the hills along his line of march to prevent them from being used by enemy snipers.85 On September 13, 1842, the British decisively defeated Akbar Khan’s forces. Two days later they reoccupied Kabul. The Afghans holding Lady Sale and the other British hostages released their prisoners unharmed. At least a dozen of them—“seized,” as one of them put it, “with a scribbling mania”—subsequently published accounts of their captivity, none more famous than Lady Sale’s best seller, A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan.86 Thus ended a “hostage crisis” that, Linda Colley argues, captured British attention every bit as much as the Iran Hostage Crisis was to transfix Americans in 1979–80—and for much the same reason: both crises revealed the unexpected vulnerability of a great power and occasioned fears, in both cases premature, about its imminent decline.87 There was an important difference, however: the American public was to be denied the catharsis of retribution that the British now undertook in Afghanistan.

To impress on the Afghans that “their atrocious conduct . . . has not been suffered to pass with impunity,”88 Pollock ordered Kabul’s Great Bazaar to be dynamited. Meanwhile the “infuriated” British troops and camp followers, “incensed to madness,”89rampaged through the city streets, burning houses, looting shops, murdering people. Less than a month after his arrival, having demonstrated to his own satisfaction the “invincibility” of “British arms,”90 Pollock marched back to India. Putting the best face on Britain’s lack of ability to administer Afghanistan, the governor-general of India proclaimed that he would “leave it to the Afghans themselves to create a Government amidst the anarchy, which is the consequence of their crimes.”91

By this time Shah Shuja had been assassinated, allowing Dost Muhammad to reclaim his throne. Following his death in 1863, his son, Sher Ali, sparked a virtual repeat of the 1838 crisis by receiving a Russian envoy but refusing to receive a British representative. In 1878 another British army marched into Afghanistan, this one armed with Martini-Henry breach-loading rifles and eventually two Gatling guns, thus giving it far more firepower than its predecessors had possessed. Sher Ali abdicated, and his son and successor signed a treaty ceding to Britain control of Afghanistan’s foreign policy. A British “resident” arrived to oversee these arrangements in 1879, but, like his predecessor in 1841, he was murdered by an Afghan mob. So yet another British army, this one under the diminutive, red-faced lieutenant general Frederick Roberts (popularly known as “Bobs”), occupied Kabul and toppled yet another Afghan monarch before marching out once again in 1880 to avoid a costly occupation. Even this victorious campaign cost the British nearly ten thousand fatalities, mostly from disease. They also suffered another notable defeat, this time at the Battle of Maiwand outside Kandahar, where nearly a thousand soldiers out of a force of approximately twenty-five hundred men were killed by a much larger Afghan contingent that was equipped with modern artillery.92

Afghanistan maintained nominal independence but became a virtual British protectorate with the Raj in control of its foreign policy. So it remained until 1919. That year another uprising, a monthlong affair known as the Third Afghan War,93 was easily quelled but prompted the British to let the Afghans go entirely their own way. For the preceding half century, however, the British had managed to achieve their essential objective of keeping Russian influence out of Afghanistan. Like the Romans after Beth-horon, they had shown an impressive ability to bounce back from disaster. That type of resiliency is essential to any nation involved in counterinsurgency warfare, which is inevitably prolonged and grueling.

The British had shown another important attribute for this type of conflict: the willingness to settle for minimalist rather than maximalist goals. Too often counterinsurgents facing a growing nationalist revolt—whether the Ottomans in Greece or the British themselves in the American Revolution—lost everything by not being willing to compromise. The Ottomans might have maintained some degree of sovereignty over Greece, just as the British might have done with their North American colonies, if they had been willing to grant more local autonomy early on; later, as losses piled up and the war became emotional on both sides, such compromises became harder to contemplate. In Afghanistan, by contrast, the British won just enough control to minimize any danger of Russian meddling, without assuming so much authority that they would spark another major uprising. This was similar in an informal way to the legal arrangements emerging at the same time to turn settler colonies such as New Zealand and Canada into self-governing states that retained an association with the British Empire. Few other imperialists—not even the British themselves on other occasions—showed such prudence and pragmatism in the face of nationalist demands. And, as the retreat from Kabul in 1842 demonstrated, the price of imperial hubris could be steep.

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