MASSACRE IN THE PASSES: ELPHINSTONE’S DISASTER!

Gandamuck

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.

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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.

1461037“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.

1461080The 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.

1461081Unfortunately 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….

(To continue reading, go here)

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5 Responses to MASSACRE IN THE PASSES: ELPHINSTONE’S DISASTER!

  1. Avesta says:

    This is a fantastic article. For further reading and reference on the disastrous folly that was the First Anglo-Afghan War, I would recommend Sir John William Kaye’ s History of the War in Afghanistan.

    Regardless of what time period, when incompetent & idealistic politicians play kingmaker with utter shortsightedness and micromanage everything on the ground, it is the soldiers that pay with their lives.

    Sir John’ s work is based on a journal that was kept by Eldred Pottinger and one of the most detailed accounts of the tragic and disastrous policy of the British Government towards Afghanistan that was initiated by Lord Auckland.

    Unfortunately, Pottinger’ s journal was destroyed in a fire. Or so that is what is written in history books.

  2. Avesta says:

    This is a fantastic article. For further reference and reading on the disaster that became the First Anglo-Afghan War, I would recommend Sir John William Kaye’ s History of the War in Afghanistan.

    Regardless of period of time in history, when idealistic and naive politicians play kingmaker and micro-manage the implementation of war with utter incompetence, it is the soldiers that pay the price for that incompetence with their lives.

    The book is a very detailed account of the disastrous policy of the British Government towards Afghanistan initiated by Lord Auckland.

    Sir John William Kaye’ s work is based on a journal written by Eldred Pottinger. Sadly, that journal was lost in a fire.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Thank you for your kind and insightful comments. Another book that I recommend, referenced in the footnotes, is Patrick Macrory’s, “The Fierce Pawns.

      Eldred Pottinger is mentioned throughout that book, and seems to have been a fascinating character. AS were many of the junior officers of the Army of Kabul; some of which went on to gain fame in later days. Most famous of these was Henry Havelock, who later won renown at Lucknow during the Great Mutiny.

  3. Avesta says:

    Dear Mr. Jacobsen,

    I am very familiar with Patrick Macrory’ s work. He is the author of “Signal Catastrophy” as well. I think Eldred was Mr. Macrory’ s great great uncle- not certain of the exact details but I know they were related.

    I have travelled to Jegdallick, Gandomak, Jellalabad, and many other spots along the road from Kabul to Jellalabad. There are villagers to this day that talk about how their forefathers or relatives attacked and fought against the retreating British forces.

    In many ways, former US Ambassador Bremer in Iraq reminds of Willaim Macnaughten. Both the 1838 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq have some similarities: Incompetant politicians manipulating intelligence and and misinforming the public when the war does not proceed as they had planned and envisioned.

    I was a strong proponent of US military action in Afghanistan after the cowardly Al-Qaeda attacks and tragic events of September 11th, 2001. However, I am now convinced that US either must withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan and disengage from nation building or, pursue the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in a proper manner that will fully eradicate this cancer that is the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and today, ISIS as well.

    I firmly believe that “Political Correctness” in fighting a war in the shadows will result in any sort of success.

    Regards,

    Avesta

  4. Avesta says:

    Dear Mr. Jacobsen,

    I am very familiar with Patrick Macrory’ s work. He is the author of “Signal Catastrophy” as well. I think Eldred was Mr. Macrory’ s great great uncle- not certain of the exact details but I know they were related.

    I have travelled to Jegdallick, Gandomak, Jellalabad, and many other spots along the road from Kabul to Jellalabad. There are villagers to this day that talk about how their forefathers or relatives attacked and fought against the retreating British forces.

    In many ways, former US Ambassador Bremer in Iraq reminds of Willaim Macnaughten. Both the 1838 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq have some similarities: Incompetant politicians manipulating intelligence and and misinforming the public when the war does not proceed as they had planned and envisioned.

    I was a strong proponent of US military action in Afghanistan after the cowardly Al-Qaeda attacks and tragic events of September 11th, 2001. However, I am now convinced that US either must withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan and disengage from nation building or, pursue the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in a proper manner that will fully eradicate this cancer that is the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and today, ISIS as well.

    I firmly believe that “Political Correctness” in fighting a war in the shadows will NOT result in any sort of success.

    Regards,

    Avesta

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