Negotiations between British envoys and Dost Mohammed
are unraveling. The Afghan ruler is deeply suspicious of English intent, resents being used as a buffer against the Russians, and deeply resents the British relationship with his chief enemy, the Sikhs of the Lahore
and their leader, Ranjit Singh
. Despite constant official visitations and entreaties, trust is unforthcoming. Finally, deeply frustrated as evidence of Russian influence in the Uzbek
region mounts in the north, Governor General
Auckland opts to take matters in hand. A plan is formulated whereby British, Sikh and Indian forces will ally themselves with the exiled Shah Shujah
, who will be provided with an army and then ‘accompanied’ back into Afghanistan
, where Mohammed will be removed from power, and the governance of Kabul
placed in the Shah’s hand.‡
News arrives in India of a massive Russo-Persian army amassing near Herat
. Though the force lays siege to the city, the Afghans hold the line, and by September the invaders withdraw. British officials, however, believe the case for a heavier commitment in Afghanistan is now all the more pressing, and rather reconfigure their strategy press on with the invasion preparations, despite widespread protest from both British press and politicians. Gov. Gen. Auckland insists the Company’s future and British commercial interests in India hinge on the security of Afghanistan against the Russian menace.
November 1838: Shah Shujah
and Lord Auckland
assemble the Army of the Indus
, a ‘coalition’ army of Sikhs, Indians, British and Afghanis, just south of the Bolan Pass
, in the mountainous region between Baluchistan
(just south of Quetta
). Fully massed, the invasion force amounted to over 21,000 fighting men: the Bengal infantry in their bright crimson tunics, wide white leather holster belts and peaked gray shakoes; English horse artillery troopers in gleaming brass dragoon helmets, white buckskin breeches and black polished jackboots; the Queen’s 16th Lancers in sea-blue overcoats with shiny silver buttons and ceremonial sabers – all led by General Sir John Keane
. Trailing behind the soldiery were the legion of support staff of 40,000 servants, artisans, bearers, cooks, grooms, smiths, tailors, fiddlers and prostitutes, in addition to some 8, 000 horses and 30, 000 camels. *
The Army, which stretches for 31m., begins across the salt-encrusted Sind desert in a 16 day, 140 m. trek which proceeds disastrously slow pace, given the sheer size of the force. Water is exhausted in a week time due to poor rationing . At Dadur
snipers begin picking off troops drooping under the blistering sun. Gen. Keane pushes his force onward out of desperation, without rest up into the 60 m. Bolan Pass, as talk of mutiny is whispered through the lower ranks.
March 1839: Quetta
is reached, but the army’s food is badly depleted and morale is shaken.
The army now turns north west and ventures further upland toward Kandahar
, dragging massive field guns along treacherous mountain passes and leaving many baggage camels for dead in the Kojuk Pass
. However, when they reach the city, the defenders flee without firing a shot.
In the Punjab
, the Sikh ally of the British force, Ranjit Singh
dies of old age. News of the loss however, does not reach the Army until much later. After nearly a month’s rehabilitation and reconnaissance, the Army of the Indus
presses onward and lays siege to the fortress of Ghazni
, which guards the road north to Kabul. However, the march from Kandahar was treacherously steep in places, and General Keane unwisely opts to leave the force’s main field guns behind. The fortress of Ghazani
is a towering sight, presenting the first real military obstacle to the British-led force. Without artillery the seizure of the citadel, held by Dost Mohammed
’s loyalists, would be extremely difficult. However, several of the Queen’s 16th volunteer to engineer a night-time demolition
raid on the fortresses poorly-guarded northern gate – the 300 pounds of exploded gunpowder tears the gate to ribbons as British cavalry charge through the brink into dust, smoke and gunfire. The crossfire is brutally chaotic as every tower and minaret bristle with rifles, but in the end most of Mohammed
’s army flees, surrenders or defects to Shah Shujah
The British Expeditionary Force
, nearly 12,000 strong, marches on and occupies the capital, Kabul
, despite blatant evidence local Afghanis are extremely dubious about the leadership or motives of the returning Shah and his English ‘assistants’. Tensions begin to mount almost immediately as the British officers, hunkering down for a protracted ‘peacekeeping’ stay, form a cantonment on the edge of the city, and immediately disrupt local customs – especially in their ‘fraternization’ with the Afghani women. #
Over time, however, conflict abroad (namely the Opium War
troubles in the Far East) distract the British administrators from the level of resentment festering about them, and many even bring their wives and children from overseas to come live in Kabul
. Dost Mohammed
however, is still very much a force in local politics, for having fled the city he spends much time drumming up support for his counterattack against the ‘infidel’ invaders and their puppet Shah.
After two years of negotiation, intelligence and intrigue, the position of British administrators and their armies in Kabul
has grown increasingly perilous. Rebel Ghilzye
tribesmen openly reject the legitimacy
of the Shah and brazenly pillage nearly every supply caravan bound for the British encampments throughout Afghanistan
. Meanwhile, home support for the occupation is also plummeting, as the bill for the cantonment force in Kabul is now pegged at 1.5 million pounds per year. Troop levels are scaled back by the new commander William Mcnaughten
as a cost-cutting measure, despite the growing level of violent animosity and the need for a strong defensive position.
British officer Alexander Burnes
, one of the most visible agents and negotiators for the British, is widely accused by the men of Kabul of dalliances with local women – and one evening early in the month receives a warning from his servants that certain chieftains have called for his assassination
. Burnes refuses to believe himself in peril, surrounded as the city is by 12, 000 of his fellow soldiers, but early the next morning a mob has gathered round his quarters and his stables are set ablaze. His translator and guide arrives to spirit him away in disguise, but they are betrayed as they run and cornered in one of Kabul’s narrow alleyways. Burnes is cut to ribbons in an instant by the mob. News of the insurgence
ignites the city as widespread looting and rioting rips through the bazaars and streets. The troopers of the Shah move into the center of the city, but 200 are killed before the day is out, and soon the rebels control key parts of the city. The next day, Nov. 3rd, the daily reports from various British outposts outside the city do not arrive, signaling an ominous encirclement as tribal factions from the mountains descend out of the north. Storehouses, armories and stables throughout the city are looted, and English families scattered throughout the city make a desperate dash towards the Army encampment, fighting off enraged Afghanis. By Nov. 5th the entire camp is hemmed in, cut off even form their stores of medicine, food and ammunition. William Mcnaughten
refused, however, to negotiate either a withdrawal or surrender, until the middle of the month when Afghan rebels use captured field guns to begin shelling the British position from the Behmaru Heights north of the city.
Moral among the British force plummets as food runs low, the nights grow increasingly cold and ammunition is all but gone. Rebel leader Vizier Osman Khan
offers the British safe passage from the city provided they immediately surrender their camp, and quit Afghanistan completely, however the month drags on as both sides quarrel over conditions and supplies. On Dec. 23rd, the crisis ignites when Macnaughten and several other officers are taken captive, then executed, then negotiations break off with Akbar Khan
. The 16, 000 remaining troops now realize only a running battle out of the city offers them an escape from starvation, even though the mountain passes out of the region are now clogged with snow.
The retreat from Kabul
begins, a chaotic mass of soldiers, horses, families and servants – nearly 40, 000 souls, all dashing madly from the city. Once into the mountain pass, even on the first night out of the city gates, many begin to die from snipers or exposure. Mountain tribes, firing long-barreled rifles with ranges far greater than English muskets, begin picking off the stragglers. All of Shah Shujah
’s men quit the retreat and return to Kabul to surrender, preferring imprisonment to death. On Jan. 8th, as the British ascend the Khoord Kabul Pass, more tribesman appear on the cliffs above, and the exodus scrambles madly forward. 3000 men, women and children are killed or wounded before the shadow of the gorge is cleared, leading hundreds more to desertion – Akbar Khan
, who has been following the retreat on horseback now implores that the British wounded, women and children be given over to his ‘safekeeping’ and those terms are accepted. Only 4,000 troops remain, and they push on by moonlight to Jagdalak Pass
, where they make their last stand. One British surgeon, William Brydon, survives to reach Jalalabad
‡ Shah Shujah
, having been provided an army of British-trained Indian sepoy
s, would govern under an English protectorate. This would allow the East India Company
to closely monitor the level of influence of Russian elements north of the Hindu Kush
mountain range, as far Tashkent
, where Czarist armies were rumored to be massing. At least this was the theory hatched from behind the mahogany desks of the British commanders in Bombay
. To any Englishmen who’d actually set foot in Afghanistan, notably the spies, the invasion plan was considered unadulterated lunacy, regardless of the size of the force. Alexander Burnes
, a British intelligence officer and a seasoned traveler in the region who frequently shuttled between Lahore
, desperately petitioned his superiors to abandon the idea, to no avail. See John H. Waller Beyond the Khyber Pass: the Road to British Disaster in the First Afghan War
(NY, Random, 1990), p. 123.
According to the Memoirs of Sita Ram Pande
(Norgate, 1873), one of the frontline infantry men who kept a journal during the entire campaign, officers always traveled with damask
table linen, sterling silver flatware and fine wines. One regiment had two camels just to carry all their cigars.
This element of the British occupation force was so scandalous, it reached the society pages of London in less than a month, when Vanity Fair
’s cartoonists characterized military service on the sub-continent as ‘Duty, Red Tapes, Picnics & Adultery’. See Waller, p. 159.
Gov. General Auckland
was apoplectic when news of the retreat and following carnage reached Delphi
. Particularly galling was the size of the British force defeated, as it was taken as gospel that any British army could hold its own against a native force ten times its size, especially with artillery
in the field and trained cavalry
. However, clearly in vales of Afghanistan, neither of these elements were of much use, particularly under winter conditions, with little ammunition and accompanying nearly 26, 000 civilian support personnel and families.