In the 1800s, the British controlled India, and the Russians, to the north, had their own designs on southern Asia. Between these two imperial powers sat the rugged land of Afghanistan. In time the periodic collisions of empire in that unforgiving landscape would become known as “The Great Game.”
One of the earliest eruptions in this epic struggle was the first Anglo-Afghan War, which had its beginning in the late 1830s. To protect its holdings in India, the British had allied themselves with an Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammed.
He had united warring Afghan factions after seizing power in 1818, and seemed to be serving a useful purpose to the British. But in 1837, it became apparent that Dost Mohammed was beginning a flirtation with the Russians.
Britain Invaded Afghanistan in the Late 1830s
The British resolved to invade Afghanistan, and the Army of the Indus, a formidable force of more than 20,000 British and Indian troops, set off from India for Afghanistan in late 1838. After difficult travel through the mountain passes, the British reached Kabul in April 1839. They marched unopposed into the Afghan capital city.
Dost Mohammed was toppled as the Afghan leader, and the British installed Shah Shuja, who had been driven from power decades earlier. The original plan was to withdraw all the British troops, but Shah Shuja’s hold on power was shaky, so two brigades of British troops had to remain in Kabul.
Along with the British Army were two major figures assigned to essentially guide the government of Shah Shuja, Sir William McNaghten and Sir Alexander Burnes. The men were two well-known and very experienced political officers. Burnes had lived in Kabul previously, and had written a book about his time there.
The British forces staying in Kabul could have moved into an ancient fortress overlooking the city, but Shah Shuja believed that would make it look like the British were in control. Instead, the British built a new cantonment, or base, that would prove very difficult to defend. Sir Alexander Burnes, feeling quite confident, lived outside the cantonment, in a house in Kabul.
The Afghans Revolted Against the British in Late 1841
The Afghan population deeply resented the British troops. Tensions slowly escalated, and despite warnings from friendly Afghans that an uprising was inevitable, the British were unprepared in November 1841 when an insurrection broke out in Kabul.
A mob encircled the house of Sir Alexander Burnes. The British diplomat tried to offer the crowd money to disburse, to no effect. The lightly defended residence was overrun. Burnes and his brother were both brutally murdered.
The British troops in the city were greatly outnumbered and unable to defend themselves properly, as the cantonment was encircled.
A truce was arranged in late November, and it seems the Afghans simply wanted the British to leave the country. But tensions escalated when the son of Dost Mohammed, Muhammad Akbar Khan, appeared in Kabul, and took a harder line.
The British Were Forced to Flee Afghanistan
Sir William McNaghten, who had been trying to negotiate a way out of the city, was murdered on December 23, 1841, reportedly by Muhammad Akbar Khan himself. The British, their situation hopeless, somehow managed to negotiate a treaty to leave Afghanistan.
On January 6, 1842, the British began their withdrawal from Kabul. Leaving the city were 4,500 British troops and 12,000 civilians who had followed the British Army to Kabul. The plan was to march to Jalalabad, about 90 miles away.
The retreat in the brutally cold weather took an immediate toll, and many died from exposure in the first days. And despite the treaty, the British column came under attack when it reached a mountain pass, the Khurd Kabul. The retreat became a massacre.
Slaughter in the Mountain Passes of Afghanistan
A magazine based in Boston, the North American Review, published a remarkably extensive and timely account titled “The English in Afghanistan” six months later, in July 1842. It contained this vivid description (some antiquated spellings have been left intact):
On the 6th of January, 1842, the Caboul forces commenced their retreat through the dismal pass, destined to be their grave. On the third day they were attacked by the mountaineers from all points, and a fearful slaughter ensued…
The troops kept on, and awful scenes ensued. Without food, mangled and cut to pieces, each one caring only for himself, all subordination had fled; and the soldiers of the forty-fourth English regiment are reported to have knocked down their officers with the butts of their muskets.
On the 13th of January, just seven days after the retreat commenced, one man, bloody and torn, mounted on a miserable pony, and pursued by horsemen, was seen riding furiously across the plains to Jellalabad. That was Dr. Brydon, the sole person to tell the tale of the passage of Khourd Caboul.
More than 16,000 people had set out on the retreat from Kabul, and in the end only one man, Dr. William Brydon, a British Army surgeon, had made it alive to Jalalabad.
The garrison there lit signal fires and sounded bugles to guide other British survivors to safety, but after several days they realized that Brydon would be the only one. It was believed the Afghans let him live so he could tell the grisly story.
The Retreat from Kabul Was a Severe Blow to British Pride
The loss of so many troops to mountain tribesmen was, of course, a bitter humiliation for the British. With Kabul lost, a campaign was mounted to evacuate the rest of the British troops from garrisons in Afghanistan, and the British then withdrew from the country entirely.
And while popular legend held that Dr. Brydon was the only survivor from the horrific retreat from Kabul, some British troops and their wives had been taken hostage by Afghans and were later rescued and released. And a few other survivors turned up over the years.
One account, in a history of Afghanistan by former British diplomat Sir Martin Ewans, contends that in the 1920s two elderly women in Kabul were introduced to British diplomats. Astoundingly, they had been on the retreat as babies. Their British parents had apparently been killed, but they had been rescued and brought up by Afghan families.