1842 retreat from Kabul
|Massacre of Elphinstone's Army|
|Part of the first Anglo-Afghan War, 1839–1842|
An 1898 depiction of the last stand of survivors of Her Majesty's 44th Foot at Gandamak.
|Afghanistan|| British Empire
|Commanders and leaders|
|Akbar Khan||William Elphinstone (POW)|
|Unknown but a British source claims possibly around 30,000||4,500 regular troops (including 690 British) and 12,000 civilian workers|
|Casualties and losses|
|Unknown||~16,500 killed or captured, 1 escaped|
The 1842 Kabul Retreat (or Massacre of Elphinstone's Army) took place during the First Anglo-Afghan War. Following an uprising in Kabul, Major General Sir William Elphinstone negotiated an agreement with Akbar Khan, one of the sons of King Dost Mohammad Khan of Afghanistan, by which his army was to withdraw to the British garrison at Jalalabad, more than 90 miles (140 km) away. As the army and its numerous dependents and camp-followers began its march, it came under attack from Afghan tribesmen. Many of the column died of exposure, frostbite or starvation or were killed during the fighting.
The Afghans launched numerous attacks against the column as it made slow progress through the winter snows of the Hindu Kush. In total the British army lost 4,500 troops, along with 12,000 mainly Indian camp-followers. The final stand was made just outside a village called Gandamak on 13 January.
Out of more than 16,000 people from the column commanded by Elphinstone, only one European (Assistant Surgeon William Brydon) and a few Indian sepoys reached Jalalabad. A few dozen British prisoners and civilian hostages were later released. Many of the British and Indians died of exposure, frostbite or starvation or were killed during the fighting. Around 2,000 of the Indians, many of whom were maimed by frostbite, survived and returned to Kabul to exist by begging or to be sold into slavery. Some at least returned to India after another British invasion of Kabul several months later, but others remained behind in Afghanistan.
In 1838 the British East India Company feared an increased Russian influence in Afghanistan after Dost Mohammad Khan had seized power from former ruler Shuja Shah Durrani in 1834. Dost Mohammad had rejected earlier overtures from Russia, but after Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India, tried to force Afghan foreign policy under British guidance, he renewed his relationship with the Russians. Lord Auckland followed the counsel of his adviser William Hay Macnaghten to support Shuja Shah, dismissing the advice of Alexander Burnes that Dost Mohammad should be supported, and resolved to seek a military solution. He began to assemble his forces in late 1838.
The army, under the command of General Sir Willoughby Cotton, with Macnaghten as his chief adviser, consisted of 20,000 soldiers and were accompanied by 38,000 civilian camp followers (craftsmen, stretcher bearers, cooks, servants, barbers, tailors, armourers, cameleers, etc., as well as families of both Indian and British soldiers). In March 1839 they crossed the Bolan Pass and began their march to Kabul. They advanced through rough terrain, crossing deserts and mountain passes at a height of 4,000 metres (13,000 ft) but made good progress and took Kandahar on 25 April. They also captured the until-then impregnable fortress of Ghazni on 22 July in a surprise attack, losing 200 men killed and wounded while the Afghans lost nearly 500 men killed and 1,600 taken prisoner, with an unknown number wounded. An Afghan had betrayed his sovereign and the British troops managed to blow one city gate and marched into the city in a euphoric mood. The ample supplies acquired in Ghazni considerably aided the further advance, which otherwise would have been difficult.
Dost Mohammed fled and sought refuge in the wilds of the Hindu Kush. Kabul fell without a fight on 6 August 1839. Shuja Shah returned and was proclaimed emir by the British. He established a court in the fortress of Bala Hissar above Kabul.
More than a year later, Dost Mohammed surrendered to Macnaghten on 4 November 1840 and was exiled to India.
In August 1839, the British refrained from occupying Kabul's citadel, instead establishing their military cantonments 1.5 miles (2.4 km) outside Kabul. This decision, made on diplomatic grounds, would prove to be a grave military error, as the garrison was sited in a defensively weak position.
As political agent and envoy at the court of Shuja Shah, Macnaghten became a leader of British society in Kabul. The city was described at the time as clean and pleasant with many spacious wooden houses surrounded by well-kept gardens. The occupiers enjoyed themselves arranging cricket matches, horse races and hunting parties. In the evenings amateur dramatics were staged by East India Company officers and their wives. Performances included Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was considered a special honour to be invited to evening soirées hosted by Lady Florentia Sale, the wife of Brigadier Robert Henry Sale. Such social gatherings often saw the serving of salmon and stew with madeira wine, port wine and champagne. Under these conditions, many of the East India Company troops were sent back to their garrisons in India.
While the British enjoyed this lifestyle, some Afghans chafed under occupation by a foreign power. Britain had replaced Dost Mohammed, a (relatively) popular ruler, with Shuja Shah, a weak puppet, who was seen as much more cruel and vindictive to his enemies than his predecessor. In 1840, the son of Dost Mohammed, Akbar Khan, began assembling allies amongst the tribesmen in the rural areas where British influence was weakest. He initiated a guerrilla war that kept the East India Company troops permanently on the move.
The efforts to control Afghanistan were further weakened by the British government in India. Dismayed at the costs of maintaining the large garrison in Kabul, it discontinued the periodic subsidies (essentially bribes) that had been paid to the various tribes in the region around Kabul and the Khyber Pass to keep the peace. Once these ended, the tribes saw no more reason to remain loyal to the British-supported regime. Macnaghten dismissed warnings from his officers, writing to his superiors in India that "this is the usual state of Afghan society". As the spring and summer of 1841 progressed, British freedom of movement around Kabul became increasingly restricted.
Despite this ominous turn of events, Sir Willoughby Cotton was replaced as commander of the remaining British troops by Sir William Elphinstone, who was ill at the time and initially unwilling to accept the appointment. The 59-year-old Elphinstone had entered the British army in 1804. He was made a Companion of the Bath for leading the 33rd Regiment of Foot at the Battle of Waterloo. By 1825 he had been promoted to colonel and made a major-general in 1837. Although Elphinstone was a man of high birth and perfect manners, his colleague and contemporary General William Nott regarded him as "the most incompetent soldier who ever became general".
In the autumn of 1841 Brigadier Robert Henry Sale and his brigade was recalled to Jalalabad, which was on the military line of communication between Kabul and Peshawar. He left his wife, Lady Sale, behind in the British cantonments in Kabul.
On 2 November 1841, Akbar Khan proclaimed a general revolt and the citizens of Kabul quickly followed suit. They stormed the house of Sir Alexander Burnes, one of the senior British political officers, and murdered him and his staff. Both Elphinstone and Macnaghten were caught by surprise. By now the East India Company only had 4,500 men in and around Kabul, of which 690 were Europeans. But as Elphinstone took no action in response to the murder of Burnes, it only encouraged further revolt. On 9 November the emboldened Afghans stormed a poorly defended supply fort inside Kabul.
On 23 November, Afghan forces occupied a hill overlooking the British cantonments and began bombarding the camp with two guns. A British force sallied out to drive them away but the Afghans inflicted heavy casualties firing jezails at long range from the high ground. The East India troops fled leaving behind 300 wounded to be killed. Morale was now a serious issue for the British force in Kabul. Elphinstone called for reinforcements from Major General Nott in Kandahar but they turned back when they found the mountain passes blocked by heavy snow.
Macnaghten, realising their desperate situation, tried to negotiate an agreement with Akbar Khan for the withdrawal of the troops and the 12,000 British and Indian civilians still at Kabul. On 23 December, Afghan leaders invited Macnaghten for tea to discuss the situation. However, at the moment the British delegation dismounted from their horses they were seized and Macnaghten and an aide were slain by armed men. Later Macnaghten's body was mutilated and dragged through the streets of Kabul. The cavalry escort which was supposed to protect the British diplomats had been delayed and had not joined them. Two other British officers who had been part of Macnaghten's party were subsequently released. Elphinstone had already partly lost command of his troops as his authority continued to diminish.
To the dismay of his officers, Elphinstone ignored the murder of a British representative and took no punitive action. Major Eldred Pottinger succeeded Macnaghten as envoy to the Afghan court. On 1 January 1842, Elphinstone agreed to Akbar Khan's terms which contained some unfavourable conditions. For example, all gunpowder reserves had to be handed over, along with the newest muskets and most of the cannon. However in return Akbar Khan promised a safe passage from Kabul for all foreign troops and civilians, amongst them children, women and the elderly. The withdrawal, which would begin on 6 January, involved crossing the snow-covered mountains of the Hindu Kush to Jalalabad, 90 miles (140 km) away.
Elphinstone commanded a column consisting of one British infantry battalion (the 44th Regiment of Foot), three regiments of regular Bengal Native Infantry (the 5th, 37th and 54th BNI), one regiment of Shah Shujah's Levy (a British-subsidised force of Indian troops recruited for Afghan service), Anderson's Irregular Horse, the 5th Bengal Light Cavalry and six guns of the Bengal Horse Artillery (with sappers). In total, there were 700 British and 3,800 Indian troops. The camp followers comprising Indian and British families, their servants and civilian workers, numbered approximately 12,500.
Retreat and massacre
At first light on 6 January Elphinstone's column began to slowly move out of Kabul leaving Shuja Shah Durrani and his followers to their fate. As Akbar Khan had guaranteed safety to all concerned, the sick, wounded and infirm were also left behind. However once the rearguard finally left the cantonments, Afghans quickly moved in firing at the retreating troops while setting fire to the garrison buildings killing all those left behind.
On leaving the city, Elphinstone discovered that the escort promised by Akbar Khan had not materialised, neither had the food and fuel to help with the crossing of the Hindu Kush in winter. Major Eldred Pottinger pleaded with the sick British commander to turn back to Kabul as they still had time to take refuge in the fortress of Bala Hissar. But Elphinstone said there would be no turning back and they would proceed to Jalalabad. The column of 16,000 soldiers and civilians was now at the mercy of the Afghan tribes.
By the second day, sniping from the surrounding hills was taking its toll on the slow-moving column. Despite being well armed, the troops' progress was being hindered by the terrified civilians and camp followers. Small skirmishes were frequent. The Afghans succeeded in capturing some of the column's artillery while forcing the British to spike two of their three remaining pieces. In just 24 hours the column now had only one small gun and two heavier cannons left. Later that afternoon, Akbar Khan met Elphinstone, feigning ignorance to any treachery on his part. He told the British that he had been unable to provide the agreed escort because they had left their cantonments earlier than expected. Akbar Khan then asked Elphinstone to wait while he negotiated the column's safe passage with the Afghan chiefs who commanded Khord-Kabul pass 15 miles (24 km) from Kabul. Despite what had already occurred, the British commander agreed to the terms and waited. He also agreed to hand over three more European hostages to Akbar Khan.
Instead of hurrying forward, Elphinstone had moved only 6 miles (9.7 km) from Kabul. By now efforts to maintain military cohesion had also began to fail. When the column entered the narrow 4-mile pass the next day, they were shot at from all sides by Ghilzais armed with captured British muskets and their traditional jezails. It was now apparent Akbar Khan had not been negotiating their safe passage; it was actually a ruse to give the Afghans more time to get into position for an ambush. Throughout the third day, the column laboured through the pass. Once the main body had moved through, the Afghans left their positions to massacre the stragglers and the wounded. By the evening of 9 January, the column had only moved 25 miles (40 km) but already 3,000 people had died. Most had been killed in the fighting, but some had frozen to death or taken their own lives.
By the fourth day, a few hundred soldiers deserted and tried to return to Kabul but they were all killed. By now Elphinstone, who had ceased giving orders, sat silently on his horse. On the evening of 11 January, Lady Sale, along with the wives and children of both British and Indian officers, and their retinues, accepted Akbar Khan's assurances of protection. Despite deep mistrust, the group was taken into the custody of Akbar's men. However once they were hostages, all the Indian servants and sepoy wives were murdered. Akbar Khan's envoys then returned and persuaded Elphinstone and his second in command, Brigadier John Shelton, to become hostages, too. Both senior officers agreed to surrender, abandoning their men to their fate. Elphinstone died on 23 April as a captive.
By 12 January, the column had been reduced to 200 soldiers and 2,000 camp followers. The remaining troops, now led by Brigadier Thomas John Anquetil, reached the Jugdulluk crest only to find it blocked by tribesmen. A desperate attack was mounted but only two groups of soldiers eventually broke through the Afghan lines. While a 12-man mounted group moved forward to reconnoitre the plains towards Jalalabad, the other group, consisting of 20 officers and 45 European soldiers, mostly infantry from the 44th Regiment of Foot, found themselves surrounded on a snowy hillock near the village of Gandamak. With only 20 working muskets and two shots per weapon, the troops refused to surrender. A British sergeant is said to have cried "not bloody likely!" when the Afghans tried to persuade the soldiers they would spare their lives. Sniping then began, followed by a series of rushes; soon the hillock was overrun by tribesmen. An officer named Captain Souter was mistaken by the Afghans as a high-ranking officer because they thought he was wearing a general's yellow waistcoat. In fact the officer had wrapped the regimental colours of the 44th Foot around his body. He was dragged into captivity along with a sergeant named Fair and seven privates. The remaining troops were killed.
On 13 January, a British officer from the 16,000 strong column rode into Jalalabad on a wounded horse (a few sepoys, who had hidden in the mountains, followed in the coming weeks). The sole survivor of the 12-man cavalry group, assistant Surgeon William Brydon, was asked upon arrival what happened to the army, to which he answered "I am the army". Although part of his skull had been sheared off by a sword, he ultimately survived because he had insulated his hat with a magazine which deflected the blow. Brydon later published a memoir of the death march. The pony he rode was said to have lain down in a stable and never got up.
The annihilation of about 16,500 people left Britain and India in shock and the Governor General, Lord Auckland, suffered a stroke upon hearing the news. In the Autumn of 1842 an "Army of Retribution" led by Sir George Pollock, with William Nott and Robert Sale commanding divisions, levelled Kabul. Sale personally rescued his wife Lady Sale and some other hostages from the hands of Akbar Khan. However, the slaughter of an army by Afghan tribesmen was humiliating for the British authorities in India.
Of the British prisoners, 32 officers, over 50 soldiers, 21 children and 12 women survived to be released in September 1842. An unknown number of sepoys and other Indian prisoners were sold into slavery in Kabul or kept as captives in mountain villages. One sepoy, Havildar Sita Ram, escaped from Afghanistan after 21 months of slavery and rejoined his former regiment at Delhi Around 2,000 sepoys and camp followers were eventually found in Kabul and brought back to India by General Pollock's army.
The leadership of Elphinstone is seen as a notorious example of how the ineptitude and indecisiveness of a senior officer could compromise the morale and effectiveness of a whole army (though already much depleted). Elphinstone completely failed to lead his soldiers, but fatally exerted enough authority to prevent any of his officers from exercising proper command in his place.
Historians still debate whether Akbar Khan ordered the massacre, sanctioned it, or was simply unable to prevent it. Some of the British officers and families taken hostage later claimed that Akbar Khan had called out "Spare them!" in Persian, but "Kill them!" in Pushtu to the tribesmen. Either way, the British reaction to such an atrocity must have been clear to him. He died near the end of 1847, possibly poisoned by his father Dost Mohammad, who may have feared his ambitions.
Dost Mohammed remained a British prisoner till the end of 1841 when he was set free by the British authorities who, after they took their revenge on Kabul, had resolved to abandon any attempts to intervene in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. After Shuja Shah was assassinated in April 1842, Dost Mohammed quickly reestablished his authority. He died on 9 June 1863 of natural causes, one of the few Afghan rulers in the past thousand years to do so. Interestingly, even after the two British invasions of his country, he did not intervene in any manner during the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
The destruction of several regiments of Indian troops during the retreat inevitably impacted on the morale of the East India Company's Bengal Army from which these units had been drawn. The reputation for invincibility previously enjoyed by the Company was broken. "Men remembered Kabul" commented a British officer at the outbreak of the great Bengal mutiny fifteen years later.
- First Afghan War - Battle of Kabul and Retreat to Gandamak
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