First Anglo-Afghan War
|First Anglo-Afghan War|
|Part of the Great Game|
A British-Indian force attacks Ghazni fort during the First Afghan War, c.1839.
|Emirate of Afghanistan|
|Commanders and leaders|
| Dost Mohammad Khan (POW)
| William Hay Macnaghten †
Sir Willoughby Cotton
William Elphinstone (POW)
Shah Shujah †
|Casualties and losses|
~500 soldiers
|4,700 soldiers + 12,000 camp followers|
The First Anglo-Afghan War (also known as the great disaster) was fought between British imperial India and the Emirate of Afghanistan from 1839 to 1842. Initially, the British successfully intervened in a succession dispute between pro-Russian emir Dost Mohammad (Barakzai) and former emir Shah Shujah (Durrani), whom they installed upon conquering Kabul in August 1839. However, in 1841 the Army of the Indus, numbering between 24,000 and 28,000 including families of soldiers, military and political pundits, suffered a series of defeats at the hands of rebel Afghan tribesmen. The main British Indian and Sikh force occupying Kabul, having endured harsh winters as well, was almost completely annihilated while retreating in January 1842. It was one of the first major conflicts during the Great Game, the 19th century competition for power and influence in Central Asia between Britain and Russia.
|History of Afghanistan|
The 19th century was a period of diplomatic competition between the British and Russian empires for spheres of influence in Asia known as the "Great Game". In 1837, Lord Palmerston and John Hobhouse, fearing the instability of Afghanistan, the Sindh, and the increasing power of the Sikh kingdom to the northwest, raised the spectre of a possible Russian invasion of British India through Afghanistan. The Russian Empire was slowly extending its domain into Central Asia, and this was seen by the East India Company as a possible threat to their interests in India. The Company sent an envoy to Kabul to form an alliance with Afghanistan's Amir, Dost Mohammad Khan against Russia.
Dost Mohammad had recently lost Afghanistan's second capital of Peshawar to the Sikh Empire and wanted support to retake it, but the British were unwilling. Dost Mohammad was interested in alliance with Britain, but only if the British would support him in his efforts to retake Peshawar, something the British were unwilling to do as the huge, French-trained Dal Khalsa was considered to be a far more formidable threat than the Afghans who did not have an army at all, instead having only a tribal levy where under the banner of jihad tribesmen would come out to fight for the Emir. The Dal Khalsa was an enormous force that had been trained by French officers, was equipped with modern weapons and was widely considered to be one of the most powerful armies on the entire Indian subcontinent. For this reason, Lord Auckland preferred an alliance with the Punjab over an alliance with Afghanistan, which had nothing equivalent to the Dal Khalsa. The British could have an alliance with the Punjab or Afghanistan, but not both at the same time. When Governor-General of India Lord Auckland heard about the arrival of Russian envoy Count Yan Vitkevich in Kabul and the possibility that Dost Mohammad might turn to Russia for support, his political advisers exaggerated the threat. Dost Mohammad had in fact invited Count Vitkevich to Kabul as a way to frighten the British into making an alliance with him against his archenemy Ranjit Singh, the Maharaja of the Punjab, not because he really wanted an alliance with Russia. The British had the power to compel Singh to return the former Afghan territories he had conquered whereas the Russians did not, which explains why Dost Mohammad Khan wanted an alliance with the British. British fears of a Russian invasion of India took one step closer to becoming a reality when negotiations between the Afghans and Russians broke down in 1838. The Qajar dynasty of Persia, with Russian support, attempted the Siege of Herat (1838) but withdrew when the British threatened military action.
Russia, wanting to increase its presence in Central Asia, had formed an alliance with Qajar Persia, which had territorial disputes with Afghanistan as Herat had been part of the Safavid Persia before 1709. Lord Auckland's plan was to drive away the besiegers and replace Dost Mohammad with Shuja Shah Durrani, who had once ruled Afghanistan and was considered pro-British. Shuja Shah had been deposed in 1809 and been living in exile in British India since 1818, collecting a pension from the East India Company, which believed that he might be useful one day. The British denied that they were invading Afghanistan, claiming they were merely supporting its "legitimate" Shuja government "against foreign interference and factious opposition." Shuja Shah by 1838 was barely remembered by most of his former subjects and those that did viewed him as a cruel, tyrannical ruler whom as the British were soon to learn had almost no popular support in Afghanistan. On October 1, 1838 Lord Auckland issued the Simla Declaration attacking Dost Mohammed Khan for making "an unprovoked attack" on the empire of "our ancient ally, Maharaja Ranjeet Singh", going on to declare that Suja Shah was "popular throughout Afghanistan" and would enter his former realm "surrounded by his own troops and be supported against foreign interference and factious opposition by the British Army". As the Persians had broken off the siege of Herat and the Emperor Nicholas I of Russia had ordered Count Vitkevich home (he was to commit suicide upon reaching St. Petersburg), the reasons for attempting to put Shuja Shah back on the Afghan throne had vanished. The British historian Sir John Kaye wrote that the failure of the Persians to take Herat "cut from under the feet of Lord Auckland all ground of justification and rendered the expedition across the Indus at once a folly and a crime". But this point, Auckland was committed to putting Afghanistan into the British sphere of influence and nothing would stop him from going ahead with the invasion. On 25 November 1838, the two most powerful armies on the Indian subcontinent assembled in a grand review at Ferozepore as Ranjit Singh, the Maharajah of the Punjab brought out the Dal Khalsa to march alongside the sepoy troops of the East India Company and the British troops in India with Lord Auckland himself present amid much colorful pageantry and music as men dressed in brightly colored uniforms together with horses and elephants marched in an impressive demonstration of military might. Lord Auckland declared that the "Grand Army of the Indus" would now start the march on Kabul to depose Dost Mohammed and put Shuja Shah back on the Afghan throne, ostensibly because the latter was the rightful Emir, but in reality to place Afghanistan into the British sphere of influence.
British Indian invasion of Afghanistan
The "Army of the Indus". which included 21,000 British and Indian troops under the command of John Keane, 1st Baron Keane (subsequently replaced by Sir Willoughby Cotton and then by William Elphinstone) set out from Punjab in December 1838. With them was William Hay Macnaghten, the former chief secretary of the Calcutta government, who had been selected as Britain's chief representative to Kabul. It included an immense train of 38,000 camp followers and 30,000 camels, plus a large herd of cattle. The British intended to be comfortable - one regiment took its pack of foxhounds, another took two camels to carry its cigarettes, junior officers were accompanied by up to 40 servants, and one senior officer required 60 camels to carry his personal effects.
By late March 1839 the British forces had crossed the Bolan Pass, reached the Baloch city of Quetta, and begun their march to Kabul. They advanced through rough terrain, across deserts and 4,000-metre-high mountain passes, but made good progress and finally set up camps at Kandahar on 25 April 1839. After reaching Kandahar, Keane decided to wait for the crops to ripen before resuming his march, so it was not until 27 June that the Grand Army of the Indus marched again. Keane left behind his siege engines in Kandahar, which turned out to be a mistake as he discovered that the walls of the Ghazni fortress were far more powerful than he expected. A deserter, Abdul Rashed Khan, a nephew of Dost Mohammad Khan, informed the British that one of the gates of the fortress was in bad state of repair and might be blasted open with a gunpowder charge. Before the fortress, the British were attacked by a force of Ghazis, tribesmen fighting under the banner of jihad who were desperate to kill farangis, a pejorative Pashtun term for the British and were beaten off. The British took fifty prisoners who were brought before Shuja, where one of them stabbed a minister to death with a hidden knife. Shuja had them all beheaded, which Sir John Kaye in his official history of the war to write this act of "wanton barbarity", the "shrill cry" of the Ghazis would be remembered as the "funeral wail" of the government's "unholy policy".
On 22 July 1839, in a surprise attack, the British-led forces captured the fortress of Ghazni, which overlooks a plain leading eastward into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The British troops blew up one city gate and marched into the city in a euphoric mood. In taking this fortress, they suffered 200 men killed and wounded, while the Afghans lost nearly 500 men. 1,600 Afghans were taken prisoner with an unknown number wounded. Ghazni was well-supplied, which eased the further advance considerably.
Following this, the British achieved a decisive victory over Dost Mohammad's troops, led by one of his sons. Dost Mohammad fled with his loyal followers across the passes to Bamyan, and ultimately to Bukhara. In August 1839, after thirty years, Shuja was again enthroned in Kabul. Shuja promptly confirmed his reputation for cruelty by seeking to wreck vengeance all who had crossed him as he considered his own people to be "dogs" who needed to be taught to obey their master.
On November 13, 1839, while en route to India, the Bombay column of the British Indian Army attacked, as a form of reprisal, the Baloch tribal fortress of Kalat, from where Baloch tribes had harassed and attacked British convoys during the move towards the Bolan Pass.
Occupation and rise of the Afghans
The majority of the British troops returned to India, leaving 8,000 in Afghanistan, but it soon became clear that Shuja's rule could only be maintained with the presence of a stronger British force. The Afghans resented the British presence and the rule of Shah Shuja. As the occupation dragged on, William Hay Macnaghten allowed his soldiers to bring their families to Afghanistan to improve morale; this further infuriated the Afghans, as it appeared the British were setting up a permanent occupation. The licentious conduct of the British troops greatly offended the puritanical values of the Afghan men who had always disapproved of premarital sex and were especially enraged to see British infidels take their womenfolk to their beds. In his official history, Sir John William Kaye wrote he sadly had to declare "there are truths which must be spoken", namely there were "temptations which are most difficult to withstand and were not withstood by our English officers" as Afghan women were most attractive and those living in the zenanas (Islamic women's quarters) "were not unwilling to visit the quarters of the Christian stranger". Kaye wrote the scandal was "open, undisguised, notorious" with British officers and soldiers openly having sexual relationships with Afghan women and in a nation like Afghanistan where women were and still are routinely killed in "honor killings" for the mere suspicion of engaging in premarital sex which is seen as a slur against the manhood of their male family members, most Afghan men were highly furious at what they saw as a national humiliation that had questioned their manhoods.
Dost Mohammad unsuccessfully attacked the British and their Afghan protégé, and subsequently surrendered and was exiled to India in late 1840.
By this time, the British had vacated the fortress of Bala Hissar and relocated to a cantonment built to the northeast of Kabul. The chosen location was indefensible, being low and swampy with hills on every side. To make matters worse, the cantonment was too large for the number of troops camped in it and had a defensive perimeter almost two miles long. In addition, the stores and supplies were in a separate fort, 300 yards from the main cantonment. The British commander, Major-General George Keith Ephinstone who arrived in April 1841 was bed-ridden most of the time with gout and rheumatism.
Between April and October 1841, disaffected Afghan tribes were flocking to support Dost Mohammad's son, Akbar Khan, in Bamiyan and other areas north of the Hindu Kush mountains, organised into an effective resistance by chiefs such as Mir Masjidi Khan and others. In November 1841, a senior British officer, Sir Alexander 'Sekundar' Burnes, and his aides were killed by a mob in Kabul. The British forces took no action in response, which encouraged further revolt. The British situation soon deteriorated when Afghans stormed the poorly defended supply fort inside Kabul on November 9.
In the following weeks the British commanders tried to negotiate with Akbar Khan. Macnaghten secretly offered to make Akbar Afghanistan's vizier in exchange for allowing the British to stay, while simultaneously disbursing large sums of money to have him assassinated, which was reported to Akbar Khan. A meeting for direct negotiations between Macnaghten and Akbar was held near the cantonment on 23 December, but Macnaghten and the three officers accompanying him were seized and slain by Akbar Khan. Macnaghten's body was dragged through the streets of Kabul and displayed in the bazaar. Elphinstone had partly lost command of his troops already and his authority was badly damaged.
Destruction of Elphinstone's army
On 1 January 1842, following some unusual thinking by Elphinstone, which may have had something to do with the poor defensibility of the cantonment, an agreement was reached that provided for the safe exodus of the British garrison and its dependants from Afghanistan. Five days later, the withdrawal began. The departing British contingent numbered around 16,500, of which about 4,500 were military personnel, and over 12,000 were camp followers. The military force consisted mostly of Indian units and one British battalion, 44th Regiment of Foot.
They were attacked by Ghilzai warriors as they struggled through the snowbound passes. The evacuees were killed in huge numbers as they made their way down the 30 miles (48 km) of treacherous gorges and passes lying along the Kabul River between Kabul and Gandamak, and were massacred at the Gandamak pass before a survivor reached the besieged garrison at Jalalabad. The force had been reduced to fewer than forty men by a withdrawal from Kabul that had become, towards the end, a running battle through two feet of snow. The ground was frozen, the men had no shelter and had little food for weeks. Of the weapons remaining to the survivors, there were approximately a dozen working muskets, the officers' pistols and a few swords. The remnants of the 44th were all killed except Captain James Souter, Sergeant Fair and seven soldiers who were taken prisoner. The only soldier to reach Jalalabad was Dr. William Brydon and several sepoys over the following nights. Another source states that over one hundred British were taken prisoner.
Many of the women and children were taken captive by the Afghan warring tribes; some of these women married their captives (one such lady was the wife of Captain Warburton), and children taken from the battlefield at the time were later identified in the early part of the 20th century to be those of the fallen soldiers and who were brought up by Afghan families as their own children.
At the same time as the attacks on the garrison at Kabul, Afghan forces beleaguered the other British contingents in Afghanistan. These were at Kandahar (where the largest British force in the country had been stationed), Jalalabad (held by a force which had been sent from Kabul in October 1841 as the first stage of a planned withdrawal) and Ghazni. Ghazni was stormed, but the other garrisons held out until relief forces arrived from India, in spring 1842. Akbar Khan was defeated near Jalalabad and plans were laid for the recapture of Kabul and the restoration of British hegemony.
However, Lord Auckland had suffered a stroke and had been replaced as governor-general by Lord Ellenborough, who was under instructions to bring the war to an end following a change of government in Britain. Ellenborough ordered the forces at Kandahar and Jalalabad to leave Afghanistan after inflicting reprisals and securing the release of prisoners taken during the retreat from Kabul.
In August 1842 General Nott advanced from Kandahar, pillaging the countryside and seizing Ghazni, whose fortifications he demolished. Meanwhile, General Pollock, who had taken command of a demoralized force in Peshawar used it to clear the Khyber Pass to arrive at Jalalabad, where General Sale had already lifted the siege. From Jalalabad, General Pollock inflicted a further crushing defeat on Akbar Khan. The combined British forces defeated all opposition before taking Kabul in September. A month later, having rescued the prisoners and demolished the city's main bazaar as an act of retaliation for the destruction of Elphinstone's column, they withdrew from Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass. Dost Muhammad was released and re-established his authority in Kabul. He died on June 9, 1863. Dost Mohammad is reported to have said:
I have been struck by the magnitude of your resources, your ships, your arsenals, but what I cannot understand is why the rulers of so vast and flourishing an empire should have gone across the Indus to deprive me of my poor and barren country.
Many voices in Britain, from Lord Aberdeen to Benjamin Disraeli, had criticized the war as rash and insensate. The perceived threat from Russia was vastly exaggerated, given the distances, the almost impassable mountain barriers, and logistical problems that an invasion would have to solve. In the three decades after the First Anglo-Afghan War, the Russians did advance steadily southward towards Afghanistan. In 1842 the Russian border was on the other side of the Aral Sea from Afghanistan; but five years later the tsar's outposts had moved to the lower reaches of the Amu Darya. By 1865 Tashkent had been formally annexed, as was Samarkand three years later. A peace treaty in 1873 with Amir Alim Khan of the Manghit Dynasty, the ruler of Bukhara, virtually stripped him of his independence. Russian control then extended as far as the northern bank of the Amu Darya.
In 1878, the British invaded again, beginning the Second Anglo-Afghan War.
Lady Butler's famous painting of Dr. William Brydon, initially thought to be the sole survivor, gasping his way to the British outpost in Jalalabad, helped make Afghanistan's reputation as a graveyard for foreign armies and became one of the great epics of empire.
In 1843 British army chaplain G.R. Gleig wrote a memoir of the disastrous (First) Anglo-Afghan War, of which he was one of the very few survivors. He wrote that it was
a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated”.
The battle honour of 'Afghanistan 1839' was awarded to all units of the presidency armies of the East India Company that had proceeded beyond the Bolan Pass, by gazette of the governor-general, dated 19 November 1839, the spelling changed from 'Afghanistan' to 'Affghanistan' by Gazette of India No. 1079 of 1916, and the date added in 1914. All the honours awarded for this war are considered to be non-repugnant. The units awarded this battle honour were:
- 4th Bengal Irregular Cavalry – 1 Horse
- 5th Madras Infantry
- Poona Auxiliary Horse – Poona Horse
- Bombay Sappers & Miners – Bombay Engineer Group
- 31st Bengal Infantry
- 43rd Bengal Infantry
- 19th Bombay Infantry
- 1st Bombay Cavalry – 13th Lancers
- 2nd, 3rd Bengal Cavalry – mutinied in 1857.
- 2nd, 3rd Companies of Bengal Sappers and Miners – mutinied in 1857.
- 16th, 35th, 37th, 48th Bengal Infantry – mutinied in 1857.
- 42nd Bengal Infantry (5th LI) – disbanded 1922.
- The First Anglo–Afghan war is depicted in a work of historical fiction, Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser. (This is Fraser's first Flashman novel.) The ordeal of Dr. Brydon may have influenced the story of Dr. John Watson in Sherlock Holmes, although his wound was suffered in the second war.
- Emma Drummond's novel Beyond all Frontiers (1983) is based on these events, as are Philip Hensher's Mulberry Empire (2002) and Fanfare (1993), by Andrew MacAllan, a distant relation of Dr William Brydon.
- G.A. Henty's children's novel To Herat and Kabul focuses on the Anglo-Afghan War through the perspective of a Scottish expatriate teenager named Angus. Theodor Fontane's poem, Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan (The Tragedy of Afghanistan) also refers to the massacre of Elphinstone’s army.
- Military history of Britain
- Military history of Afghanistan
- Chapslee Estate
- European influence in Afghanistan
- Invasions of Afghanistan
- Second Anglo-Afghan War
- Third Anglo-Afghan War
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- Perry, James Arrogant Armies, Edison: CastleBooks, 2005 page 111.
- Perry, James Arrogant Armies, Edison: CastleBooks, 2005 page 112.
- Perry, James Arrogant Armies, Edison: CastleBooks, 2005 pages 109-110.
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- Perry, James Arrogant Armies, Edison: CastleBooks, 2005 page 116.
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- Perry, James Arrogant Armies, Edison: CastleBooks, 2005 pages 120-121
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- Who after his demise in 1841, was replaced by his son Mir Aqa Jan, see Maj (r) Nur Muhammad Shah, Kohistani, Nur i Kohistan, Lahore, 1957, pp. 49–52
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- 'no man could say, unless it were subsequently explained, this course was not as rash and impolitic, as it was ill-considered, oppressive, and unjust.' Hansard, 19 March 1839.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to First Anglo-Afghan War.|
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- The Afghan Wars 1839–42 and 1878–80 by Archibald Forbes, from Project Gutenberg
- Pictures of the First Anglo–Afghan War
- The War of Kabul and Kandahar, circa 1850