The Battle of Kabul 1842
Battle: Kabul 1842
War: First Afghan War
Date: August to October 1842.
Combatants: British and Indian troops against Afghan
levies and tribesmen.
Generals: General George Pollock and Brigadier Nott
against Akbhar Khan and a number of leaders and tribal chiefs.
Size of the armies: General Pollock’s army numbered 8,000.
Brigadier Nott’s force numbered around 3,000. Afghan numbers varied
widely across the country. In the advance up the Jugdulluk Pass
Akhbar Khan faced Pollock with some 15,000 men.
Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The British infantry, wearing cut away red coats, white trousers
and shako hats, carried the old Brown Bess musket and bayonet. The
Indian infantry were similarly armed and uniformed.
The Light Dragoons (Hussars) wore the standard hussar uniform of
pelisse, dolman and shako rather than a busby, and were armed with
swords and carbines.
The Afghan soldiers were dressed as they saw fit and carried an
assortment of weapons, including muskets and swords. The Ghilzai
tribesmen carried swords and jezails, long barrelled muskets.
Winner: The British and Indians.
Afghanistan showing the routes to Kabul from Punjab and the South
British and Indian Regiments:
General Pollock’s army:
3rd HM Light Dragoons (Hussars) now Queen’s Royal Hussars
9th HM Foot, later Norfolk Regiment and now the Royal Anglian
13th HM Foot, later Somerset Light Infantry and now the Light
31st HM Foot, later East Surrey Regiment and now the Princess of
Wales’s Royal Regiment
3rd (King's Own) Light Dragoons
1st Bengal Light Cavalry
10th Bengal Light Cavalry
2 Regiments of Irregular Horse
6th Bengal Infantry
26th Bengal Infantry
30th Bengal Infantry
33rd Bengal Infantry
35th Bengal Light Infantry
53rd Bengal Infantry
60th Bengal Infantry
64th Bengal Infantry
2 batteries of Horse Artillery
3 batteries of Field Artillery
1 battery of Mountain Artillery
HM Regiment of Foot
Brigadier Nott’s army:
40th HM Foot, later South Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s
41st HM Foot, later the Welch Regiment and now the Royal Regiment of
3rd Bombay Cavalry
Regiment of Irregular Horse
16th Bengal Infantry
38th Bengal Infantry
42nd Bengal Infantry, later 5th Jat Light Infantry
43rd Bengal Infantry, later 6th Jat Light Infantry
12th Khelat-i-Ghilzai Regiment (of Shah Shujah)
2 batteries of Horse Artillery
2 batteries of Field Artillery
Royal Artillery 6 pounder in action
The British colonies in India
in the early 19th Century were held by the Honourable East India
Company, a powerful trading corporation based in London, answerable
to its shareholders and to the British Parliament.
In the first
half of the century France as the British bogeyman gave way to
Russia, leading finally to the Crimean War in 1854. In 1839 the
obsession in British India was that the Russians, extending the
Tsar’s empire east into Asia, would invade India through
held obsession led Lord Auckland, the British governor general in
India, to enter into the First Afghan War, one of Britain’s most
ill-advised and disastrous wars.
Skinner's Horse on March
First Afghan War the Sirkar (the Indian colloquial name for the East
India Company) had an overwhelming reputation for efficiency and
good luck. The British were considered to be unconquerable and
omnipotent. The Afghan War severely undermined this view. The
retreat from Kabul in January 1842 and the annihilation of
Elphinstone’s Kabul garrison dealt a mortal blow to British prestige
in the East only rivaled by the fall of Singapore 100 years later.
of the disaster are easily stated: the difficulties of campaigning
in Afghanistan’s inhospitable mountainous terrain with its extremes
of weather, the turbulent politics of the country and its armed and
refractory population and finally the failure of the British
authorities to appoint senior officers capable of conducting the
campaign competently and decisively.
HM 9th Foot entering Allahabad after the march from Kabul
substantially Hindu East India Company army crossed the Indus with
trepidation, fearing to lose caste by leaving Hindustan and appalled
by the country they were entering. The troops died of heat, disease
and lack of supplies on the desolate route to Kandahar, subject, in
the mountain passes, to constant attack by the Afghan tribes. Once
in Kabul the army was reduced to a perilously small force and left
in the command of incompetents. As Sita Ram in his memoirs
complained: “If only the army had been commanded by the memsahibs
all might have been well."
of the First Afghan War was a substantial contributing factor to the
outbreak of the Great Mutiny in the Bengal Army in 1857.
Bengal Native Infantry
successful defence of Jellalabad and the progress of the Army of
Retribution in 1842 could do only a little in retrieving the loss of
the East India Company’s reputation.
Learning of the massacre of the British and Indian Army
retreating from Kabul in January 1842, the Governor General in
Calcutta, Lord Auckland, rushed reinforcements across India to
Peshawar and appointed General George Pollock commander in chief of
the relieving force, the first artillery officer to hold high
command in a British Army.
Pollock reached Peshawar on 6th February 1842 to find the 2
brigades of Indian sepoys in a state of neardisintegrated morale. It
took months of encouragement and training to restore the regiments
to a condition of battle readiness, all the while receiving pleas
for help from Brigadier Sale, besieged in Jellalabad beyond the
In March 1842 a third brigade consisting of cavalry reached the
army, a reinforcement that completed the restoration of the sepoys’
On 5th April 1842 Pollock’s army of 8 infantry regiments, 3
cavalry regiments and 2 batteries of artillery, 8,000 in all,
marched out for the Khyber.
The British Army marching out of the mountains into Central
Afridi tribesmen blocked the pass with a barricade of wood and
thorns. Columns of infantry infiltrated along the peaks on either
side of the barricade while the artillery blasted grape shot into
the thicket and the Afridis abandoned the barricade without a fight.
That night the army encamped beneath the recaptured strongpoint of
Ali Masjid, the iconic feature at the top of the pass.
At about this time the Ameer left in Kabul by the British, Shah
Shujah, was murdered by the Sirdars in his capital city and his son
Futteh Jung reluctantly and fearfully took the throne for a short
time before escaping to the British camp and surrendering to
In the South of Afghanistan Brigadier Nott resolutely held
Kandahar with a force maintained at a high level of efficiency and
morale, in sharp contrast to the state of the dispirited and finally
annihilated troops that marched from Kabul in January 1842.
An Afghan village in the Khyber Pass
In December 1841 Elphinstone despairing called for Brigadier
Maclaren’s brigade to march from Kandahar to Kabul, but the
Afghanistan winter had balked the journey and forced Maclaren to
return to Kandahar, leaving Nott with a powerful and self-confident
In January 1842 Nott received the same message that Shah Shujah
sent to Sale in Jellalabad directing him to retreat to Indian. In
marked contrast to Sale’s vacillations Nott refused point blank.
In March 1842 news reached Kandahar of the surrender of the
garrison in Ghuznee to the Afghans. In spite of a guarantee of safe
conduct the Afghans massacred the sepoys and took the British
officers prisoners, among them John Nicholson, later to earn fame at
the Siege of Delhi during the Indian Mutiny.
Also in March 1842 Pollock’s force reached Jellalabad, where the
garrison was found to have fought off the besieging Afghans. Pollock
and Nott awaited instructions from the new Governor General in
Calcutta, Lord Ellenborough, Pollock’s primary concern being to
secure the release of the British prisoners from the Kabul garrison
still held by the Afghans.
Indian sepoys picketing a gorge surprise Afghan tribesmen
Ellenborough’s initial order sent in mid-May 1842 was for both
forces to retreat to India, with the implication that the prisoners
would be abandoned.
Before either force was ready to begin the withdrawal
Ellenborough, on 4th July 1842, varied his orders by permitting Nott
to withdraw to India via Kabul and Jellalabad and Pollock to
withdraw via Kabul.
Captain Colin Mackenzie, Madras Army,
after his release from captivity
This was the wide discretion each general sought and both rushed
for Kabul. Pollock fought two vigorous skirmishes on the way, in one
of which, at Huft Kotal, he inflicted a heavy reverse on Akhbar Khan
and his army of 15,000 Afghan troops, before marching onto the old
race course outside Kabul on 15th September 1842. For much of the
route the troops were forced to trample over the bones of their
colleagues and their families massacred and mutilated during the
terrible retreat in January.
The progress of Pollock’s army was marked with the utmost
savagery. Not for nothing was it named the “Army of Retribution.” In
areas known to have taken part in the massacre of the Kabul
garrison, whole populations were slaughtered and villages burnt.
On 9th August 1842 Nott sent the greater part of his force back
to India from Kandahar via the southern route through Quetta while
he marched for Kabul with his two British battalions, his “beautiful
sepoy regiments” and his artillery.
On 28th August 1842 as Nott’s army approached Ghuznee his cavalry
was badly mauled in a bungled attack on an Afghan force. On 30th
August 1842 an army of 10,000 Afghans formed on the hills to the
left of the Kabul road. Nott attacked and forced the Afghans off the
battlefield with substantial losses.
Nott reached Ghuznee on 5th September 1842 and drove the Afghans out
before pillaging the town in revenge for the massacre of the sepoy
garrison and the ill-treatment of the British officers.
The spurious Gates of Somnath carried
from Ghuznee in
by the 43rd Bengal Native Infantry
9th Jat Light Infantry) in 1842 on
Lord Ellenborough, the Governor General
It was the command of the new Governor General, Lord Ellenborough,
that the army bring away a set of ornate gates, known as the Somnath
Gates, looted from India by the Afghans and hung at the tomb of
Sultan Mohammed in Ghuznee. A sepoy regiment, the 6th Jat Light
Infantry, was required to carry the gates back to India.
On 17th September 1842 Nott’s army reached Kabul to find, to his
chagrin, Pollock there before him.
It was known that the British prisoners from the Kabul garrison were
being taken west towards Bamian. Nott on his march to Kabul had
refused to comply with the urgings of his officers to dispatch a
force to Bamian. Pollock sent a force of Kuzzilibash Horse under Sir
Richmond Shakespear to Bamian. Brigadier Sale was sent with a force
of infantry to support Shakespear, appropriately as Lady Sale was
one of the prisoners.
Shakespear arrived at Bamian on 17th September 1842 to find the
British prisoners had negotiated their own release and were in
command of their prison and the surrounding area. Prisoners and
escort arrived in Kabul on 21st September 1842 to a rapturous
greeting. Before the British and Indian troops left Afghanistan for
India there was still unfinished business.
The Kohistanees were known to have played a major part in the
uprisings of December 1841 and January 1842 leading to the massacre
of the Kabul garrison. A division from the “Army of Retribution”
conducted a foray into Kohistan burning the capital Charikar to the
ground and massacring much of the population.
In Kabul Pollock’s army destroyed the main bazaar on the basis that
the heads of Macnaughten and Burnes had been carried through it
after their murder in 1841.
Skinner's Horse at exercise
On 12th October 1842 Pollock and Nott left Kabul with their
troops and began the retreat to India via Gandamak, Jellalabad and
Peshawar, destroying Jellalabad and Ali Masjid and many villages and
towns on the way. Yet again the truth of Wellington’s words were
demonstrated (“It is easy to get into Afghanistan. The problem is
getting out again.”) The Afghans harried the retreating troops along
the route, particularly through the gorges of Jugdulluk and the
Khyber Pass. In the final fighting 60 of Nott’s force were killed
before the British and Indians reached Peshawar.
Casualties: British and Indian casualties were around 500.
Afghan casualties are unknown. Many thousands of Afghans were
slaughtered in the reprisals.
Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan has always been dramatic
and destructive; never more so than in the First Afghan War.
Britain had enough of Afghanistan after the terrible events of
1839 to 1842. The policy of the Government of India, particularly
that of the “masterful inactivity” of Lord Lawrence, kept the
British out of Afghanistan for thirty years, until another lapse of
good sense and restraint saw the outbreak of the Second Afghan War.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
- The Gates of Somnath: In around 1025 Mahmud of Ghuznee
pillaged the Hindu Temple of Somnath on the south western Indian
coast. Tradition had it that the Afghans removed the sandalwood
gates of the shrine and took them to Ghuznee where they were
hung on Mahmud’s tomb. Lord Ellenborough, the Governor General,
in a curiously smug attempt to gain the approval of his Hindu
subjects ordered that the gates be recovered and brought to
India. In obedience to Ellenborough’s order, Nott’s men, during
the pillage of Ghuznee in revenge for the massacre of its
garrison, removed the gates. On hearing that his orders had been
complied with, Lord Ellenborough issued a sententious
declaration that the British in recovering the gates had wiped
out a disgrace of 800 years standing. The 6th Jats carried the
Somnath Gates back to India where Ellenborough caused them to be
paraded across India in a special ceremonial car, before being
returned in triumph to the shrine at Somnath. On examination
Hindu scholars rejected the idea that the gates were the
originals taken from Somnath and they were relegated to the fort
at Agra. No doubt there was unflattering comment made of the
Governor General in the ranks of the 6th Jats.
- The Khelat-i-Ghilzai Regiment of the Shah Shujah’s service
on its arrival in India was taken into the British service with
that name and continues in the Indian Army.
- A battery of horse artillery in Shah Shujah’s army was also
taken into the British Army and continues as T Battery of 14th
Regiment, Royal Artillery, with the subsidiary name of Shah
Shujah’s Battery; a reminder of Britain’s involvement in the
First Afghan War.
The Afghan Wars by Archibald Forbes
Afghanistan from Darius to Amanullah by General McMunn
History of the British Army by Fortescue.