Foolish political policies and military incompetence lead to bloody disaster for the British in the First Afghan War!
In 1876, George Armstrong Custer and some 268 some members of the US 7th cavalry were “massacred” in battle against native Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in the valley of the Little Bighorn River. This signal, but ultimately meaningless defeat of a “modern” military force by technologically inferior tribal forces is almost universally known in America; thanks to countless books and not a few films that deal with the subject.
What is almost universally forgotten is the far greater and more politically significant destruction of a much larger British Army just 34 years earlier; by Afghan tribesman in the snowbound passes of Eastern Afghanistan.
Afghanistan was a pawn in the “Great Game” for control of Central Asia and India. Seen here in a political cartoon of the day, Afghanistan is courted (and squeezed between) its two suitors, the Russian bear and the British lion.
The First Afghan War (1839-1842) is best understood in context of the so-called “Great Game”: the contest for influence in Central Asia between the Russian Empire and Great Britain. India, the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, was governed from Calcutta by the East India Company (colloquial known as “John Company”); and garrisoned by an army of largely British-led native troops, called Sepoys (from a Turkic/Persian term for professional soldier, Sipahi). These Sepoy regiments supported a core of British regiments; both “John Company” troops and “Queen’s Regiments” of the regular British Army.
“John Company” Sepoy soldiers. Though brave, loyal, well-trained and equipped with the same weapons as their British counterparts (in “the Queen’s regiments”), the Bengali Sepoys often lacked shoes or wore sandals; and suffered terribly in the Afghan winter The great fear among Britain’s leaders was of a Russian invasion of the Indian Sub-continent. With reinforcement from England half-a-year’s journey by sea from India, an invasion in force by Russian forces based in Central Asia had every chance of prying the “Jewel in the Crown” from Britain’s grasp.
To invade India from their dominions in Central Asia, the Czar’s forces would need to transit through independent Afghanistan. In 1838 Russia’s ally, the Shah of Persia, laid siege to the western Afghan city of Herat. This caused ripples of fear within government circles in Calcutta, that this was the prelude to just such an invasion.
The Kingdom of Afghanistan at that time was ruled by Shah Dost Mohammed of the Durrani dynasty. For a variety of (irrational) reasons, it was felt that Dost Mohammed should be replaced with a ruler more pliable to British interests. The British Governor General of India, Lord Auckland, decided that the deposed and aged former ruler of Afghanistan, Shuja Shah Durrani, would be restored by armed force to his lost throne in Kabul; as a British client-ruler.
The stage was thus set for the First Afghan War.
MARCH ON KABUL
In the early months of 1839 an East India Company army of 20,500 men, commanded by Sir John Keane (a veteran of the Peninsula War and the Battle of New Orleans), invaded Afghanistan. The British entered the country through the Bolan Pass, initially meeting no resistance. Once in Afghanistan, they marched north toward Kabul, Dost Mohammed’s capital. The “John Company” troops proved irresistible; storming the “impregnable” fortress of Gazni; the Medieval capital of the 11th century conqueror, Mohammed of Gazni. Marching on Kabul, Dost Mohammed fled and the British captured the city.
The Afghans were overawed; impressed by the seeming unbeatable British forces. Shuja Shah was installed within the massive walls of the Bala Hissar, Kabul’s Medieval fortress; and after temporarily escaping, Dost Mohammed was captured and taken back as a “guest” of the British Raj in India.
With Shuja Shah in place, the war seemed over, a complete and nearly bloodless British victory. With the “mission accomplished”, the majority of the British forces withdrew back to India. To keep order in the country and forestall Russian invasion, garrisons were established at Kandahar, Gazni, Jalalabad, and, primarily, in unfortified cantonments outside of Kabul. In total, only 8,000 troops were left to hold down the entire country.
Unfortunately for British fortunes, the main force of some 4 Brigades at Kabul was placed under the command of one of history’s most ineffectual generals: Major General Sir William George Keith Elphinstone.
Known as “Elphy Bey” by the Sepoy troops under his command, Elphinstone was a veteran of Waterloo, where he had commanded a battalion of foot….