British Invade Afghanistan and Set Up Puppet Ruler, End Up Losing Entire Army
“The Great Game” was the term coined for the decades of jockeying for influence in Central Asia between the British and Russians during the 19th century. As the Russians pursued their version of “Manifest Destiny” in the region, the British suspected them of coveting India. So they did their best to keep Russian borders far away from Britain’s most prized imperial possession.
Afghanistan, which lay between India and Russia’s steadily expanding borders in Central Asia, was a flashpoint between the Great Game rivals. In the 1830s, an Afghan king became too friendly with Russia for Britain’s tastes, so the British invaded Afghanistan in 1839 and deposed its Russophile ruler. They replaced him with a British puppet in Kabul, backed by British garrisons in Afghanistan’s capital and key cities. The British made themselves comfortable, and it seemed only a matter of time before the country was annexed to British India.
However, the Afghans grew troublesome, and Britain’s pet ruler was unable to control his countrymen. By 1841, disgruntled Afghan tribes rose in revolt against the British and their puppet. Soon, the countryside was lost and supply lines to India were cut off. British control shrank to the garrisoned cities, and before long, it was reduced to the grounds of their fortified garrisons.
A face saving measure was needed to extricate the British from what had become an untenable situation. So the puppet ruler was pensioned off, and the ruler whom the British had deposed in 1839 was recalled. In exchange for getting reinstalled, the old ruler promised to control the Afghan tribes long enough for an orderly and peaceful British withdrawal from Afghanistan. Things went sour, however, when the reinstalled ruler either reneged on his promise, or proved incapable of controlling the Afghan tribes.
On January 6th, 1842, the British set out from Kabul amid falling snow. Their column of 16,500 soldiers and civilians was barely a mile beyond the city before it began taking sniper fire from the surrounding hills. By day’s end, emboldened Afghan tribesmen were dashing in and out of the column to loot its supply train and slaughter whomever they could lay their hands on.
Many in the British column froze to death that night, as they camped in the open without tents. With the morning, some Afghan chieftains arrived to demand that the British halt while they tried to ensure the safety of the route ahead. They also extorted a huge bribe from the British, browbeat them into signing an agreement to withdraw immediately from all of Afghanistan, and received British officers as hostages. By the following day, when the British resumed the march, many of their soldiers had become too weakened by the cold to fight. As they entered a narrow pass, Afghans opened fire from the heights above, and the British suffered 3000 casualties by the time they had stampeded to the other side.
Next day, the British were shaken down for more money and more hostages, in exchange for empty promises to rein in the tribesmen. On January 11th, the British commander and his deputy were forced to surrender in exchange for yet another promise of safe passage. Soon thereafter the British found their path barred, this time for good, by entrenched Afghans who had blocked and fortified a pass. A desperate charge to break through was attempted, but it was beaten back.
A week after setting out from Kabul, the last group of survivors formed a tiny square on January 13th to make a last stand. All were killed. Later that afternoon, British sentries in Jellalabad, on the lookout for the arrival of the Kabul garrison, saw a single rider approaching. It was a Dr. Brydon, the sole survivor of the British retreat from Kabul.