IN 1839 the British decided to counter a supposed Russian threat to India by installing a puppet king in Afghanistan and turning the country into a buffer state. But occupation failed miserably and the ensuing retreat turned into the greatest British military catastrophe of the century . The north-west frontier was only secured in 1849 after the ruthless seizure of Sind and two more gruelling wars against the hard-fighting Sikhs of the Punjab.
In the early 19th century Russia was advancing southwards in central Asia. In London and Calcutta the irrational fear grew that Russian troops might one day seize Britain's Indian empire. This fear grew out of all proportion led to one of the greatest disasters in the history of the empire. In 1839, in a panic-stricken effort to protect the north west frontier against a supposed Russian threat, the British invaded Afghanistan only to have 16,000 soldiers, dependants and camp-followers annihilated in the ensuing retreat. The need for revenge and security then led to a second invasion of Afghanistan and within a few years to the annexation of two other buffer states, the Sind and the Punjab. Security first, from the Russians and then from the Afghans was dearly bought; a legacy of hatred involved the British in a series of petty border wars against dissident tribesmen until well into the 20th century. In hindsight British fears of Russia seem fantastic. Though some Russian generals may have dreamed of conquering India one day, they were a very long way off. The distance between the nearest Russian base in central Asia and the frontiers of British India was 2,000 miles. In between lay the inhospitable terrain occupied by the independent kingdoms of Afghanistan and the Punjab.
Initially military strategists felt that if ever a threat developed from Russia it would best be met on the plains of northern India near well established bases rather than in the wilds of central Asia. This view was undermined when in 1826, Russia successfully attacked Persia an supplanted Britain as the dominant power in that country. It was felt in Britain that the situation in Afghanistan should be closely watched, particularly as after almost 20 years of anarchy, a new ruler, Dost Muhammed, seemed about to bring peace to the country. By the early 1830’s with the apparent growth of the Russian threat some British strategists felt that it would be a good plan to give support to the former deposed Afghan ruler Shah Shuja and help him regain power using him as a puppet for the British to secure the frontier against invasion, whilst others felt that the country’s best interest would be served by building up the new Afghan ruler- Dost Muhammed.
The latter theory was supported by Alexander Burnes, former soldier of the army of the East India Co. Who’s flair for languages and enterprising travels had won him promotion into the Foreign and Political Department. In 1831 at 26 years of age he was sent on an intelligence mission to Ranjit Singh ruler of the Punjab. He returned to British India and met Shah Shuja who was still dreaming of a return to power. Burnes was not impressed. “I do not believe the Shah possesses sufficient energy to seat himself on the throne of Kabul”, “and if he did regain it, he has not got the tact to discharge the duties of so difficult a situation”. This opinion he conveyed to the then Governor -General Lord Willliam Bentinck. Subsequently Burnes, during a journey through central Asia, met Dost Muhammed in Kabul on his was to Bokhara, Samarkhand and Persia. He was welcomed by Dost Muhammed and was greatly impressed by the personality of the Afghan ruler.
This was the man Burnes was convinced Britain should support not the wretched Shah Shuja. Without British assistance Shah Shuja was compelled to turn to his former host Ranjit Singh of the Punjab who had previously incarcerated him. Shuja then with a small force, slowly made his way into Afghanistan towards Kandahar only to be ignominiously chased away by Dost Muhammed. The next two years saw the scene being set for a terrible drama. In 1834, a new ruler Mohammed Shah succeeded to the throne of Persia and his ambitions were enlarged by his Russian advisors. This news was not well received in London and the British minister at the Persian court was instructed to warn the Persian government against allowing themselves to be pushed into making war in Afghanistan
The rulers reaction was one of polite indifference, added to the sense of unease in London. It was clear that great events of some kind were taking place in central Asia and it would be wise for the government of India to know more about them. The assignment was given to Alexander Burnes who had become famous after the publication in 1834 of a description of his travels and he was acknowledged to be the greatest authority on the affairs of Central Asia. Burnes mission to Kabul was not supposed to be political merely commercial, but neither Burnes nor Dost Muhammed acknowledged the restriction. Burnes had no authority to offer Dost Muhammed anything. Dost Muhammed wanted an alliance with India and if he did not get it he would turn to the Persians and the Russians for help in regaining Peshawar from the Sihks.
Sir William Macnaghten, head of the Foreign and Political Department in the Government of India, refused to help Dost Muhammed in this matter. In April 1838, after a stay of seven months Burnes left Kabul for India convinced that the favourable reception given to the Russians had been designed wholly to bring pressure on the British. In 1838, when the British Governor General in India asked for Burnes views he replied that he still regarded Dost Muhammed as “a man of undoubted ability”, but if the British government was contemplating deposing Dost Muhammed it had only to send Shah Shuja to Peshawar with an agent and two regiments as honorary escort and an avowal to the Afghans that we have taken up his cause, to ensure he be fixed for ever on the throne of Kabul. Burnes did not really believe this, but he felt pressurised for career reasons to make these comments. The plan to send a British force to reinstall Shah Shuja on the throne of Afghanistan was the sole responsibility of Sir William Macnaghton. Ranjit Singh of the Punjab would supply the men and the British, the funding and the advisors. It became clear however, that Ranjit Singh had no intention of using Sikh forces, it was his intention that the British fight the battles for him.
It bacame necessary, due to the fact that Ranjit Singh would not permit a British army to march through his territory (the Punjab) for the British to use the route through Sind and on its way coerce the three Amirs of Sind to pay for the expedition. Meantime the reason for the entire operation, i.e. The Persian march on Herat with Russian support had petered out with the Persians giving up and marching home. The two ostensible reasons for the adventure had disappeared but too late to change British plans.
The British army marched through Sind in December 1838 accompanied by William Macnaghton. During the march through Sind and because of unsanitary conditions the fighting soldier was badly affected by dysentery and cholera. It became obvious that this British army was commanded by ineffective generals, Sir Willoughby Cotton and Sir John Keen and the officers although men of courage had little experience. The real command of the expedition however lay with Macnaghton and other ‘politicals’.
Kandahar was taken in April 1839, but the installation of Shah Shuja as ruler of Afghanistan, was a matter of indifference to the populace of that country and no show of enthusiasm or loyalty. The army now moved against Kabul leaving General Sir William Nott to hold Kandahar. In August 1839, Shah Shuja and the British finally reached Kabul and made a ceremonial entry with Burnes and Macnaughton in blue and gold dress uniforms flanking Shah Shuja in the vanguard, the Shah entered the palace of his ancestors. There had been no signs of delight on the faces of his subjects and observers only noticed stern and scowling looks. The news of the installation of his puppet reached Governor-General Auckland at Simla amid congratulatory balls and galas. In Kabul it was becoming increasingly obvious that the British could not leave Shah Shuja alone as he appeared to wield no power of his own. If the British wished to see their man remain on the throne, they would have to stay on themselves.
The unmarried British officers quickly discovered that the Afghan women were remarkably pretty and on the whole willing to give their favours for cash. This angered the Afghan men. On other levels too the British built up antagonism. The recklessness with which money was squandered by the occupying force soon drove prices high and the poor of the city began to suffer. By early 1840 it was becoming plain that all was not well. The warlords had not come from the countryside to offer their loyalty to Shah Shuja. Where there were British troops, the Shah ruled but nowhere else. By September 1840 Macnaughton was driven to distraction “the Afghans are gunpowder and Dost a lighted match”. All through 1841 the storm gathered. Macnaughton had been ordered to cancel some of the subsidies which kept the warlords quiet. Powerful tribes were in revolt now led by Dost Muhammed’s son Akbar Khan
Burnes leading a separate life deep in the city centre of Kabul heard news of rebellion. He was convinced that disaster was at hand. Rumours abounded of preparations for an attack on the hated foreigners and their puppet. In the meantime, early in 1841, General Cotton retired and was replaced by General William Elphinstone who was so crippled with rheumatic gout that he was unlikely to be of any use. In October General Sir Robert Sale and his brigade were ordered back to India as an economy measure . Halting in the valley of Gandamak he received word that the City of Kabul was in uprising and ordered to retrace his steps. After consulting his officers he disobeyed Elphinstones orders and made for Jallalabad.
The rising started on November 1st with an attack on Burnes’s house, where he took refuge with the baying mob outside. He felt he could deal with the matter himself but things got out of hand and he and his companions were besieged and awaited relief from the cantonment - it never came. Burnes dressed as a native and attempted escape but was recognised and with his brother John was hacked to pieces.
In the cantonment muddle and inertia still reigned, The second-in-command Brigadier John Shelton, courageous but cantankerous man, was finally ordered by Macnaughton into the Bala Hissar (Shahs’ palace) but not into the streets of Kabul. Seeing that the British were not moving on the city, the mob which had been expecting an attack, began to plunder murder and rape. Elphinstone was too sick to command but would not relinquish his authority. And Shelton, frustrated and powerless began to quarrel with Macnaughton also.
News of the murder of Burnes and the immobility of the British, spread rapidly throughout the country, garrisons were attacked, columns massacred and the chiefs began to move on Kabul where the British leaders collapsed in a total funk. On November 13th the Afghans who now dominated the height above the cantonment swept down on the British lines outside Kabul.
Although repulsed the situation was clearly desperate. “The occupation,” wrote one young officer “was a catalogue of errors, disasters and difficulties, which, following close on each other disgusted our officers, disheartened our soldiers and finally sunk us all into irretrievable ruin”.
Forced into negotiation, Macnaughton fell back on his old methods, where guns had failed, gold and intrigue would certainly succeed. On December 23rd 1841, Macnaughton set out with a small escort to do a deal with Akbar Khan by which the British would stay for eight months more and Akbar would become Chief minister.
Negotiations with Akbar Khan led to a curt treaty “to put away strife and to avoid discord and emnity “ The British were to go at once leaving all their treasure and most of their artillery.
In January 6th 1842, the once proud Army of the Indus marched out of Kabul for India. They had 90 miles of thick snow, freezing temperatures and high passes to cover before they reached Jalallabad where General Sale was firmly ensconced. The sensible suggestion that the troops be equipped with sheepskin jackets and should bind their feet with rags as the Afghans did was rejected.
Some 4,500 fighting troops, hundreds sick and wounded, a large party of women and children a vast quantity of baggage and 12,000 panic-stricken camp-followers straggled out of the cantonment. The column made barely six miles the first day. Most of the provisions had been thrown away by terrified servants.
They met on the bank of the Kabul River a quarter of a mile from the cantonment. Macnaughton complained that there were too many Afghans crowding in but suddenly Akbar called out “beeger” (meaning seize), grasping the envoys hand with an expression of the utmost diabolical ferocity, Macnaughton was shot in a struggle by Akbar using a pistol which Macnaughton had given the prince a few days before. Later Macnaughtons’s headless body was displayed hanging from a pole set up in the Kabul bazaar.
All scraped away the snow as best they could that first night, to make a place to lie down . No food for man or beast procurable. The rearguard came in at two o’clock in the morning having fought their way through literally a continuous line of poor wretches men women and children, dead or dying of cold and wounds, who unable to move entreated their comrades to kill them an put and end to their misery.