Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

Great Britain’s Worst Military Blunder in South Asia

Recounting the disastrous end of Great Britain’s first invasion of Afghanistan.

Franz-Stefan Gady
Great Britain’s Worst Military Blunder in South Asia

‘Remnants of an Army’ by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,000 strong military expedition from Kabul in January 1842.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Tate Gallery

On a cold morning on January 6, 1842, the remnants of the British East India Company’s occupation force of Kabul, 3,800 sepoys (Indian soldiers in British service), 690 European cavalry and infantry, and 12,000 civilian camp followers (families of European and Indian soldiers, servants, merchants, workmen, among others) set out on a 90-mile (140 kilometers) retreat through the snow-covered mountains of eastern Afghanistan to the town of Jalalabad, garrisoned by the British, from their military cantonments 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) outside of Kabul.

Of the 16,000-strong column only one British officer, Assistant Surgeon William Brydon, would arrive in Jalalabad seven days later on January 13. The rest of the army had been killed, captured or wounded—the worst military defeat of the British Empire until the fall of Singapore a hundred years later in February 1942.

What was the cause of this military blunder?

The origins of the so-called First Anglo-Afghan War fought from 1839-1842 lay in the great power rivalry between the British and Russian Empires. The growing Russian expansion into Central Asia in the early 19th century caused British authorities in Calcutta and London to fear a Russian invasion of India via the Khyber and Bolan Passes. As a result, Afghanistan became a strategically important buffer state that the British deemed a necessary check to Russian ambitions in the region. (Although, it is apparent Russia never harbored any serious intentions to invade British India.)

Sensing a possible inroad, the British East India Company tried to form an alliance with Afghanistan’s Emir Dost Mohamad Khan against Russia. Yet because of a British unwillingness to help Dost Mohamad recover the city of Peshawar, which was lost to the Sikhs, the emir turned to Russia for support. However, talks between Afghanistan and Russia soon broke down. An attack on Herat by Iranian and Russian troops made the Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, issue the so-called Simla Manifesto in October 1838 announcing his intention to replace Dost Mohamad with a pro-British ruler, Shuja Shah Durrani, who had lost the Afghan throne 30 years previously.

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The Anglo-Indian force of around 20,000 soldiers (both from the regular British Army and British East Indian Company Army) and 38,000 civilian camp followers began its invasion in March 1839. The force quickly took control of Kandahar, the fortress of Ghazni, finally occupying Kabul and deposing Dost Mohamad in August 1839, after which the majority of troops returned to their home garrisons in India.  For the next two years, the British and its allies fought a counter-insurgency campaign against Afghan tribesmen. A major blow occurred in the fall of 1841, when the British-Indian exchequer, alarmed by the huge occupation costs, decided to suspend payments to local warlords, which led to the massive defection of tribesmen to the son of Dost Mohamad, Mohamad Akbar Khan, who had rallied anti-British forces in the country.

The British occupation force found itself increasingly isolated with more and more Afghans turning against the occupiers and their puppet regime. In November 1841, the British East Indian Company’s political agent, Sir Alexander Burnes, and his staff were killed by a mob in Kabul. Another senior diplomat, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, and three aides were ambushed and killed by Mohamad Akbar Khan’s men while trying to negotiate safe passage for British imperial forces to India.

The military commander of the Kabul garrison, elderly and gout-riddled, Major-General Lord Elphinstone, eventually negotiated an agreement on January 1, 1842 with Khan, who was ostensibly guaranteeing safe passage for the Anglo-Indian force. The British had been under siege by tribal forces in their poorly located cantonment northeast of Kabul for two months, and their position was increasingly more tenuous. Elphinstone agreed to leave most of his gunpowder reserves, the majority of his canons and a large quantity of muskets behind and abandon Kabul, despite the protests of the most senior British political officer left alive, who said that, “He was obliged to negotiate for the safety of a parcel of fools who were doing all they could to ensure their own destruction.”

An aide to Shuja Shah Durrani recorded a letter that the puppet king sent to the British stating that:

To leave the cantonment in the depths of this harsh winter is an act of extreme folly, beware, do not think of going to Jalalabad! If you must leave the cantonment, then come and spend the winter with us in the Bala Hisar fort [a citadel overlooking Kabul], and if supplies run out, we will make sorties to plunder round about for our survival.

The aid dryly recorded that the British did not accept the offer, as William Dalrymple recounts in his book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan. Another suggestion by Durrani to at least save women and children from destruction and have them seek refuge in his fortress was also rebuffed.

Thus the Anglo-Indian force set out on the morning of January 6. Neither the escort Mohamad Akbar Khan had promised the British nor the promised supplies to help the force cross the treacherous Hindu Kush Mountains in winter materialized. The troops and civilians almost immediately came under attack from sniper fire after they left their camp, while the sick and wounded, which Akbhar Khan had sworn to protect, including elements of the army’s rearguard where killed by tribal warriors. The retreating force also lost two out of its nine remaining guns. By the next morning, almost half of the 4,500 soldiers were unfit to carry anything but the clothes on their backs. Many of those who weren’t killed, wounded or captured by the Afghans had frozen to death overnight.

Military discipline among the retreating troops broke down on the second day as entire units dispersed among the increasingly desperate British and Indian civilians. “Most discipline is at an end,” recorded a British officer in his diary. More guns were lost and an entire sepoy regiment defected to Akbar Khan. Some sepoys and camp followers also tried to sneak back into Kabul, while a growing number lethargically settled down on the road waiting for the Afghans to either capture or finish them off. What was left of the force settled down at an encampment at the mouth of the Khord Kabul pass on the order of Major-General Lord Elphinstone in the middle of the afternoon on January 7, after the force had covered less than 5 miles during the day.

The next day, Elphinstone tried to renegotiate safe passage with Akbar Khan and had two officers turned over as hostages. The tribal leader sought to delay the British advance into the mountains by promising to negotiate on their behalf with the Afghan chiefs defending the mountain passes. Elphinstone, increasingly out of his depth with the deteriorating situation, agreed and led the advance guard into a perfectly laid out ambush. The mountain pass, jammed with troops and camp followers, became an abattoir.

According to the wife of a British Army officer, quoted in Return of a King: “Our men were dropping fast from a flanking fire from the heights…[At least] 500 of our regular troops, and about 2,500 of our camp followers are killed.” A British officer recounted the situation in the rear of the column that day:

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There the scene of slaughter was dreadful. We had to run the gauntlet of the whole length of this fearful defile, a distance of about 5 miles. All baggage was abandoned. The enemy not only poured in a murderous fire from every rock and cave in the heights on each side, but descended into the Pass and slew man, woman, and child.

He notes that the road was covered with the dead and dying.

What was left of the force encamped at the top of the pass where snow began to fall in the evening that developed into a full-scale blizzard. No food or other supplies remained. Only four tents were left. Afghan tribesmen abducted many women and children during the night. The next morning, January 9, the survivors found a frozen wasteland. A British officer recalled: “The flesh from men’s feet was peeling off in the flakes. Scores has been frozen to death in the night.” During the day while the blizzard raged, Afghan tribesmen killed off and plundered the “the helpless English troops” as one witness recounted. The tribesmen found the British soldiers “half dead, or frozen solid like stones, no longer caring about their weapons (…) barely conscious at all.”

That evening Lord Elphinstone admitted that his force was doomed and decided to handover all the British women over to Akbar, who had pledged to protect them and any children and wounded officers. Two men, eight women and nine children were turned over to the Afghan leader. On the morning of January 10, almost all sepoys had either fled or been captured or killed. Only the Europeans remained in the main column as a coherent fighting force. The troops slowly slouched their way through the Tezin Pass amidst freezing temperatures and a heavy snowstorm. They marched directly into another ambush set by the Afghans. According to Elphinstone: “The slaughter was frightful and when we reached Kubber Jubber fighting men were with difficulty distinguished from camp followers. Most had thrown away their arms and accoutrements; and fell an easy prey to our barbarous and bloodthirsty foe.” Only 200 hundred men remained. (Elphinstone, for inexplicable reasons, ordered troops not to return fire.) At night, Akbar invited Elphinstone and the other remaining high-ranking officer, Brigadier Shelton, for a parlay and had them taken prisoner.

On the night of January 12 the remaining 200 tried to continue their march only to be stopped by a barrier of  “prickly holly oak, well twisted together, about six feet high,” according to an eyewitness account, erected across the narrowest part of the valley. The soldiers and few remaining camp followers tried to overcome the obstacle while under attack by the Afghans. Only eighty managed to make it across alive—20 officers and 45 soldiers of the 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot, British artillerymen and a handful of Indian sepoys.  Their remaining weaponry consisted of 20 muskets and 160 musket balls and a handful of swords and bayonets. On top of the hill of Gandamak they gathered for a last stand after refusing an offer of quarter. (“Not bloody likely,” a British sergeant allegedly shouted in response.) William Dalrymple described the doleful end:

They formed a square, and defended themselves, driving the Afghans several times down the hill until they had exhausted the last of their rounds, and then fought on with their bayonets. Then, one by one, they were slaughtered.  They Afghans took only nine prisoners.

One of prisoners was a British captain with the regimental colors wrapped around his waist. 15 cavalrymen who managed to escape the valley were later ambushed in the village of Fattehabad and all killed.

Only one British officer, William Brydon, arrived in Jalalabad on January 13 on a wounded horse. He was all that was left of the 16,000 soldiers and camp followers that had set out seven days earlier from Kabul. A British officer remembered how the bugles were blown to guide other stragglers but none arrived that day:

The terrible wailing sound of those bugles I will never forget. It was a dirge for our slaughtered soldiers and, heard all through the night, it had an inexpressibly mournful and depressing effect. Dr. Brydon’s tale struck horror in the hearts of all who heard it. The whole army had been destroyed, one man alone escaping to the tell the fearful tale.

The British defeat was total.

As William Dalrymple, however, points out in his work, around 2,000 sepoys would return in addition to 35 British officers, 51 privates, 12 wives and 22 children. Large Anglo-Indian garrisons still remained in Kandahar and Jalalabad.  Nevertheless, the shock of the defeat ran deep and sent shockwaves across the British Empire. Lord Auckland, the architect of the invasion, suffered a stroke upon hearing the news. An immediate consequence of the defeat was a growing discontent in the ranks of the British East India Company Army given that many European officers were known to have abandoned their Indian sepoys during the retreat. When the Sepoy Mutiny broke out in 1857, many of ringleaders were members in sepoy regiments who had fought in Afghanistan over a decade earlier.   

British authorities in India quickly dispatched a force to retrieve hostages and prisoners and to relieve the remaining Anglo-Indian troops in Afghanistan in the spring of 1842. This so-called “Army of Retribution”relieved the Kandahar garrison in August of the same year, recaptured Ghazni and destroyed its fort. They also cleared the Khyber Pass and dealt Akbar Khan a severe defeat. In September, the British retook Kabul and razed the city’s main bazaar. Anglo-Indian forces plundered and ransacked the Afghan countryside throughout the punitive expedition. The Army of Retribution eventually returned to India with 90 odd hostages. Elphinstone, whose incompetence largely resulted in the worst military defeat of the British Empire in Asia in the 19th century, was not among the liberated. He had died in captivity a few months earlier.

Emir Dost Mohamad Khan was eventually released from British captivity, after London and Calcutta vowed to abandon attempts to intervene in Afghan domestic politics following the 1842 retreat from Kabul. Ironically, the emir concluded a military alliance with the British Empire in the 1850s and helped secure the northwestern borders of the British Raj.

A version of this article has previously been published in The Diplomat Magazine.