The First Afghan War:
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 Afghanistan.
This widely 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.
Until the 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.
The causes 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.
The 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.”
The disaster of the First Afghan War was a substantial contributing factor to the outbreak of the Great Mutiny in the Bengal Army in 1857.
The 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 Kabul.
The British official controlling the expedition was Sir William Macnaghten, the Viceroy’s Envoy, acting with his staff of political officers.
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 districts.
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 Cotton.
In December 1840 Shah Shujah and Macnaghten withdrew to Jellalabad for the ferocious Afghan winter, returning to Kabul in the spring of 1841. Read more, here: