For much of the nineteenth century, the British and Russians jockeyed for influence in Central Asia. The Russians pursued their version of “Manifest Destiny”, and expanded into the region. The British feared that the Russians coveted India, and sought to keep Tsarist borders as far away as possible from Britain’s most prized imperial possession. In the 1830s, an Afghan ruler became too friendly with Russia for Britain’s tastes. So the British invaded Afghanistan in 1839, and deposed its Russophile ruler. They replaced him in Kabul with a British puppet, and garrisoned the Afghan capital and key cities to keep their new pet ruler in power.
Things initially went well for the British. They made themselves comfortable in Afghanistan, and it seemed only a matter of time before the country was annexed to India. However, the Afghans proved obstreperous, and Britain’s puppet couldn’t control the country. By 1841, discontent had flared into open revolt as the Afghan tribes rebelled against the British and their pet ruler. As the countryside was lost and supply lines to India were cut off, British control shrank to the garrisoned cities. Soon, the British found themselves in control of little more than the grounds of their fortified garrisons.
The British sought a face-saving measure to extricate themselves from what had become an untenable situation in Afghanistan. They removed their puppet ruler, and dusted off the ruler they had deposed in 1839. They reinstalled the old ruler, in exchange for his promise to control the Afghan tribes long enough for the British to evacuate Afghanistan and withdraw in peace. Whether the reinstalled ruler deliberately betrayed the British, or simply lacked the influence to control the tribesmen, things went sour. As snow fell, the British set out from Kabul on January 6th, 1842. Their column of 16,500 soldiers and civilians was barely a mile beyond the city before it began to take sniper fire from nearby hills.
By that first day’s end, emboldened parties of Afghan tribesmen had begun to dash in and out of the column to loot the supply train and butcher whoever they could lay their hands on. That night, many froze to death as the column encamped in the open without tents. The following day, some Afghan leaders arrived and demanded that the British halt while they tried to ensure the safety of the route ahead. They requested a large sum of money, negotiated a British agreement to withdraw immediately from all of Afghanistan, and demanded that they be given officers as hostages. The British agreed to those extortionate demands. As seen below, it did not save them from disaster.
The day after they struck a deal with the Afghans to let them go in peace, the British resumed their march from Kabul. By then, many of the soldiers had become too debilitated by the cold to fight. As they entered a narrow pass, the column was fired upon by tribesmen ensconced on the rocks above, and suffered 3000 casualties. Over the following days, 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 was made to try and break through, but it was beaten back. On January 13th, a week after they had set out from Kabul, the last group of survivors formed a tiny square and made a last stand. They were wiped out. 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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading