Modern-day location – the Kabul–Jalalabad Road, known today as National Highway 08, between the Afghan cities of Kabul and Jalalabad
Conflict – First Afghan War, 1839–1842
Forces engaged – Major General Sir William Elphinstone with 4,500 regular soldiers and approximately 14,000 civilians, versus Wazir Akbar Khan and other Afghan chieftains with an unknown number of Ghilzai irregular fighters, possibly as many as 30,000
During the nineteenth century, the British and Russian Empires were engaged in the so-called ‘Great Game’. This was an ongoing political and diplomatic confrontation along the northern borders of Afghanistan where Russian influence was believed to threaten British-ruled India. The ‘Game’ was played out through constant political manoeuvring and attempts to manipulate local leaders.
By 1838, Lord Auckland, the governor-general of India, became convinced that Afghanistan’s current ruler, the Emir Dost Muhammad Khan, had pro-Russian sympathies, and decided to replace him with a more amenable ruler. A suitable candidate was already available: Shah Shoja Durrani, leader of a rival Afghan family, who had previously ruled in Kabul before being deposed by a rival in 1812. After deliberating with his advisor Sir William MacNaghten and Sir Alexander Burnes, the British diplomatic resident in Kabul, Auckland decided to restore Shah Shoja’s rule in return for the right to maintain a British military mission in the city.
Accordingly, in 1839, the ‘Army of the Indus’, composed of British and Indian troops, entered Afghanistan and marched north. As the army approached Kabul, many of Dost Muhammad’s troops deserted, forcing him to flee to the north. The British installed Shah Shoja on the throne, and most of the army returned to Bombay in India. Their departure left Burnes and MacNaghten with a garrison of a few thousand men, installed in the Bala Hissar fortress in Kabul.
The following year, the fugitive Dost surrendered to the British and was placed under house arrest in Ludhiana, a city in the Punjab. However, his son Wazir Akbar Khan continued to stir up unrest and rebellion against the invaders and the unpopular Shah Shoja.
Over the next twelve months, relations between the Afghans and the British occupiers steadily deteriorated. Nevertheless, many soldiers and officers sent for their wives and families to join them. Command of the garrison also passed to Major-General Elphinstone. At 59 years old, Elphinstone had served at Waterloo but now suffered from gout and was often bedridden. Meanwhile, Shah Shoja required the Bala Hissar to accommodate his own troops and his harem, ordering the British to relocate to a tented camp north of the city in an area overlooked by high ground. Elphinstone concurred without argument.
Matters reached a head on November 1 1841 when a militant crowd surrounded Burnes’ house. Desperate to defuse the situation, MacNaghten and Elphinstone declined to intervene: Shah Shoja sent troops into the city but they were repelled, and the residency was sacked, the mob tearing Burnes to pieces and killing everyone else inside the house. Yet the murders prompted no British response.
During the next three weeks, armed tribesmen began to occupy the heights around the British camp. Yet still, Elphinstone did not act. It was only when the Afghans placed two cannons on a hilltop, and began to fire on the camp below, that the British responded. Elphinstone dispatched a column of infantry and cavalry to put the guns out of action. However, after accomplishing this, the troops encountered a mass of Afghan cavalry. The infantry formed squares, but the solid formations offered an excellent target to Afghan sharpshooters. The British suffered heavy casualties, and the survivors fled in panic back to the camp. All this happened in full view of Elphinstone who made no attempt to support or reinforce the column.
A word of explanation is necessary here: the British soldiers and sepoys (locally-trained Indian troops) were equipped with the standard ‘Brown Bess’ smoothbore musket. This weapon was designed to be fired in volleys in formal warfare, and was hopelessly inaccurate: in fact it did not even have proper sights! Meanwhile the Afghan tribesmen fought by what the Native Americans called ‘the skulking way of war’ – in other words, skirmishing and hiding behind cover. They were armed with traditional jezails: long flintlock muskets with rifled barrels, which were accurate at four or five times the range of a smoothbore. The contest, therefore, was unequal from the start…
MacNaghten attempted negotiations with Akbar Khan who had arrived to lead the insurrection. The two parties met a few hundred yards outside the camp. Almost immediately a scuffle broke out and before anyone in the camp could react, the British envoy and his retinue had been stabbed and hacked to death. Elphinstone, now in sole command, decided that he must secure safe passage out of Kabul for the garrison and their dependents. Akbar Khan reluctantly agreed to allow this if his father was released from captivity. As a sign of good faith, the British were to hand over most of their arms and ammunition as well.
On January 6, 1842, Elphinstone led a long, straggling column out of Kabul, leaving Shah Shoja and his followers to their fate. The rough mountain road snaked across the high snowbound passes of the Hindu Kush, to the nearest British base at Jellalabad, about 90 miles away. As well as 4,500 regular troops, most of them sepoys, the column included about 14,000 non-combatants: family members, servants and camp followers.
As soon as the column entered the rugged mountain passes, the Afghan attacks began: sudden ambushes, rocks tumbling down hillsides, and continual sniping from the hilltops. Many died in skirmishes along the trail, while many more perished in the bitter winter weather: at night, the thermometer sank to ten degrees or more below zero. The tribesmen seized a few officers, including Elphinstone, and some prominent civilians as hostages but everyone else was mercilessly killed. Over the course of a week, the dwindling column was harried from one ravine to the next. About fifty ragged soldiers made a last stand near a village called Gandamack, still many miles short of Jellalabad, and by January 13, the column had been completely wiped out.
A gravely wounded army surgeon and a few straggling sepoys managed to escape the disaster, bringing the news to Jellalabad, which itself underwent a lengthy siege by Afghan fighters. The setbacks in Afghanistan caused shock and outrage in Britain, although the government soon decided that the whole campaign had been a mistake. In autumn 1842, an ‘Army of Retribution’ fought its way through to Kabul and rescued the surviving hostages. After blowing up the Great Bazaar and other important buildings as a reprisal, the British forces withdrew to India and released Dost Muhammad, who soon re-established his authority in Kabul. The First Afghan War was at an end.
However, the Great Game was far from over.
Britain was to fight two more Afghan Wars, between 1878 and 1880 against Dost Muhammad’s son Sher Ali, who once again was courting the Russians, and in 1919, when the Afghans invaded British India.
The next episode in the Game was a full 60 years later, in 1979, when the Soviets intervened in an Afghan civil war, and spent the next nine years striving to crush an insurgency by mujahideen fighters, who were in fact descendants of Dost Muhammad’s tribesmen. The ‘Soviet Vietnam’ cost up to 2 million lives and played a significant part in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Years later, the mujahideen morphed into the Taliban, who in their turn were to resist an invasion by US-led forces in the aftermath of 9/11. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: the wild frontier of Afghanistan, is still far from tamed today…
Bruce, R. and others – Fighting Techniques of the Imperial Age 1776-1914 – Amber Books, 2009
David, S. – Victoria’s Wars – Penguin Books, 2007
Holmes, R. (Ed) – Oxford Companion to Military History – Oxford University Press, 2001
Kohn, G. – A Dictionary of Wars – Facts on File Publications, 1986
This article was written by Tim Barney, a Mirthy public speaker who specialises in military history and technology. Following a career in the IT industry, Tim has embraced the opportunity to pass on some of the fascinating facts and stories he has absorbed over the years.
This is the second article of the new series ‘Battle of the Month’, where Tim is bringing a different battle to life each month.
Tim’s talks can be found at Mirthy Talk Catalogue | Military History.