The Battle of Kabul and the retreat to Gandamak
War: First Afghan War
Date: January 1842.
Place: Central Afghanistan.
Combatants: British and Indians of the Bengal Army and the
army of Shah Shuja against Afghans and Ghilzai tribesmen..
Afghans attacking the retreating British and Indian army
Generals: General Elphinstone against the Ameers of Kabul,
particularly Akbar Khan, and the Ghilzai tribal chiefs.
Size of the armies: 4,500 British and Indian troops
against an indeterminate number of Ghilzai tribesmen, possibly as
many as 30,000.
Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The British infantry, wearing cut away red jackets, white trousers
and shako hats, were armed with the old Brown Bess musket and
bayonet. The Indian infantry were similarly armed and uniformed.
The Ghilzai tribesmen carried swords and jezail, long barrelled
Winner: The British and Indian force was wiped out other than a
small number of prisoners and one survivor.
The route taken by the Kabul garrison during its disastrous retreat
to India in January 1842
44th Foot, later the Essex Regiment and now the Royal Anglian
Regiments of the Bengal Army:
2nd Bengal Light Cavalry
1st Bengal European Infantry
37th Bengal Native Infantry
48th Bengal Native Infantry
2nd Bengal Native Infantry
27th Bengal Native Infantry.
Bengal Horse Artillery
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.
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.
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.
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.
Following the British capture of Kandahar and Ghuznee Dost
Mohammed, whose replacement on the throne in Kabul by Shah Shujah
was the purpose of the British expedition into Afghanistan,
despairing of the support of his army fled to the hills. On 7th
August 1839 Shah Shujah and the British and Indian Army entered
The British official controlling the expedition was Sir William
Macnaghten, the Viceroy’s Envoy, acting with his staff of political
At first all went well. British money and the powerful
Anglo-Indian Army kept the Afghan tribes in controllable bounds,
pacifying the Ameers with bribes and forays into the surrounding
Afghan tribesmen waiting to attack the Kabul Brigade during the
agonising retreat to India
In November 1840 during a raid into Kohistan two squadrons of
Bengal cavalry failed to follow their officers in a charge against a
small force of Afghans led by Dost Mohammed himself. Soon
afterwards, despairing of his life in the mountains, Dost Mohammed
surrendered to Macnaghten and went into exile in India, escorted by
a division of British and Indian troops no longer required in
Afghanistan and accompanied by the commander in chief Sir Willoughby
In December 1840 Shah Shujah and Macnaghten withdrew to
Jellalabad for the ferocious Afghan winter, returning to Kabul in
the spring of 1841.
In the assumption that the establishment of Shah Shujah as Ameer
was complete, the British and Indian troops were required to move
out of the Balla Hissar, a fortified palace of considerable strength
outside Kabul, and build for themselves conventional cantonments. A
further complete brigade of the force was withdrawn, leaving the
remaining regiments to settle into garrison life as if in India,
summoning families to join them, building a race course and
disporting themselves under the increasingly menacing Afghan gaze.
There were plenty of signs of trouble. The Ghilzai tribes in the
Khyber repeatedly attacked British supply columns from India. Tribal
revolt made Northern Baluchistan virtually ungovernable. Shah
Shujah’s writ did not run outside the main cities, particularly in
the South Western areas around the Helmond River.
Sir William Cotton was replaced as commander in chief of the British
and Indian forces by General Elphinstone, an elderly invalid now
incapable of directing an army in the field, but with sufficient
spirit to prevent any other officer from exercising proper command
in his place.
Afghan tribesmen armed with jezails
The fate of the British and Indian forces in Afghanistan in the
winter of 1840 to 1841 provides a striking illustration of the
collapse of morale and military efficiency where the officers in
command are indecisive and wholly lacking in initiative and
self-confidence. The only senior officer left in Afghanistan with
any ability was Brigadier Nott, the garrison commander at Kandahar.
Crisis struck in October 1841. In that month Brigadier Sale took
his brigade out of Kabul as part of the force reductions and began
the march through the mountain passes to Peshawar and India.
Throughout the journey his column was subjected to continuing attack
by Ghilzai tribesmen and the armed retainers of the Kabul Ameers.
Sale’s brigade, which included the 13th Foot, fought through to
Gandamak, where a message was received summoning the force back to
Kabul, Sale did not comply with the order and continued to
In Kabul serious trouble had broken out. On 2nd November 1841 an
Afghan mob stormed the house of Sir Alexander Burnes, one of the
senior British political officers, and murdered him and several of
his staff. It is the authoritative assessment that if the British
had reacted with vigour and severity the Kabul rising could have
been controlled. But such a reaction was beyond Elphinstone’s
abilities. All he could do was refuse to give his deputy, Brigadier
Shelton, the discretion to take such measures.
Until the end of the year the situation of the Kabul force
deteriorated as the Afghans harried them and deprived them of
supplies and pressed them more closely.
On 23rd December 1841 Macnaghten was lured to a meeting with
several Afghan Ameers and murdered. While the Kabulis awaited a
swift retribution the British and Indian regiments cowered fearful
in their cantonments.
Attempts to clear the high ground that enabled the Afghans to
dominate the cantonments failed miserably, because the troops were
too cowed to be capable of aggressive action.
The beginning of the end came on 6th January 1842 when the
British and Indian garrison, 4,500 soldiers, including 690
Europeans, and 12,000 wives, children and civilian servants,
following a purported agreement with the Ameers guaranteeing safe
conduct to India, marched out of the cantonments and began the
terrible journey to the Khyber Pass and on to India. As part of the
agreement with the Ameers all the guns had to be left to the Afghans
except for one horse artillery battery and 3 mountain guns and a
number of British officers and their families were required to
surrender as hostages, taking them from the nightmare slaughter of
the march into relative security.
In spite of the binding undertaking to protect the retreating
army, the column was attacked from the moment it left the Kabul
The army managed to march 6 miles on the first day. The night was
spent without tents or cover, many troops and camp followers dying
The next day the march continued, Brigadier Shelton, after his
ineffectiveness as Elphinstone’s deputy, showing his worth leading
the counter attacks of the rearguard to cover the main body.
At Bootkhak the Kabul Ameer, Akbar Khan, arrived claiming he had
been deputed to ensure the army completed its journey without
further harassment. He insisted that the column halt and camp,
extorting a large sum of money and insisting that further officers
be given up as hostages. One of the conditions negotiated with the
Ameers was that the British abandon Kandahar and Jellalabad. Akbar
Khan required the hostages to ensure Brigadier Sale left Jellalabad
and withdrew to India.
The next day found the force so debilitated by the freezing night
that few of the soldiers were fit for duty. The column struggled
into the narrow five mile long Khoord Cabul pass to be fired on for
its whole length by the tribesmen posted on the heights on each
side. The rearguard was found by the 44th Regiment who fought to
keep the tribesmen at bay. 3,000 casualties were left in the gorge.
On 9th January 1842 Akbar Khan required further hostages in the
form of the remaining married officers with their families. For the
next two days the column pushed through the passes and fought off
the incessant attacks of the tribesmen.
On the evening of 11th January 1842 Akbar Khan compelled General Elphinstone and Brigadier Shelton to surrender as hostages, leaving
the command to Brigadier Anquetil. The troops reached the Jugdulluk
crest to find the road blocked by a thorn abattis manned by Ghilzai
tribesmen. A desperate attack was mounted, the horse artillery
driving their remaining guns at the abattis, but few managed to pass
this fatal obstruction.
The last stand of the survivors of Her Majesty's 44th Foot at
The final stand took place at Gandamak on the morning of 13th
January 1842 in the snow. 20 officers and 45 European soldiers,
mostly of the 44th Foot, found themselves surrounded on a hillock.
The Afghans attempted to persuade the soldiers that they intended
them no harm. Then the sniping began followed a series of rushes.
Captain Souter wrapped the colours of the regiment around his body
and was dragged into captivity with two or three soldiers. The
remainder were shot or cut down. Only 6 mounted officers escaped. Of
these 5 were murdered along the road.
On the afternoon of 13th January 1842 the British troops in Jellalabad, watching for their comrades of the Kabul garrison, saw a
single figure ride up to the town walls. It was Dr Brydon, the sole
survivor of the column.
Dr Brydon arrives at Jellalabad, the last survivor of an
army of 16,500 soldiers and civilians
The entire force of 690 British soldiers, 2,840 Indian soldiers
and 12,000 followers were killed or in a few cases taken prisoner.
The 44th Foot lost 22 officers and 645 soldiers, mostly killed.
Afghan casualties, largely Ghilzai tribesmen, are unknown.
The massacre of this substantial British and Indian force caused
a profound shock throughout the British Empire. Lord Auckland, the
Viceroy of India, is said to have suffered a stroke on hearing the
news. Brigadier Sale and his troops in Jellalabad for a time
contemplated retreating to India, but more resolute councils
prevailed, particularly from Captains Broadfoot and Havelock, and
the garrison hung on to act as the springboard for the entry of the
“Army of Retribution" into Afghanistan the next year.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
- The First Afghan War provided the clear lesson to the
British authorities that while it may be relatively
straightforward to invade Afghanistan it is wholly impracticable
to occupy the country or attempt to impose a government not
welcomed by the inhabitants. The only result will be failure and
great expense in treasure and lives.
- The British Army learnt a number of lessons from this sorry
episode. One was that the political officers must not be
permitted to predominate over military judgments.
- The War provides a fascinating illustration of how the
character and determination of its leaders can be decisive in
determining the morale and success of a military expedition.
- It is extraordinary that officers, particularly senior
officers like Elphinstone and Shelton, felt able to surrender
themselves as hostages, thereby ensuring their survival, while
their soldiers struggled on to be massacred by the Afghans.
Afghanistan From Darius to Amanullah by Lieutenant General Sir
The Afghan Wars by Archibald Forbes.