The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History

Khalid Elhassan - March 15, 2023

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
The British Army in Afghanistan. Encyclopedia Britannica

Escape From Afghanistan

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 Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Afghans attack the retreating British. Wikimedia

Britain’s Most Humiliating Colonial 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.

The Worst Avoidable Disasters In World History
Remnants of an Army’, by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival at Jalalabad on January 13th, 1842, of Dr. William Brydon, the sole survivor of the British retreat from Kabul. Art Fix Daily

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

Bagnall, Nigel – The Punic Wars (1990)

British Battles – Battle of Kabul and the Retreat to Gandamak

Brooklyn Eagle, December 20th, 1876 – The Inquest: How Three Hundred People Met Their Death

China Project – A 17th Century Mushroom Cloud: The Wanggongchang Explosion

Cracked – 5 Old-Timey Disasters America Could Have Easily Avoided

Darlymple, William – Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (2013)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Arminius, German Leader

Geni – Wreck of the White Ship

Goody Feed – 5 Facts About 1986’s Hotel New World Collapse that S’Poreans Probably Didn’t Know Of

Herzog, Chaim – The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East From the 1948 War of Independence to the Present (2005)

History Collection – 20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made

Jackson, Julian – The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940 (2003)

Kershaw, Ian – Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (1998)

Lazenby, John – Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War (1998)

Library of Congress Research Guides – Brooklyn Theater Fire (1876): Topics in Chronicling America

Macgowan, John – The Imperial History of China (1906)

Middle East Review of International Affairs, Volume 9, No. 2, Article 2, June 2005 – Nasser and His Enemies: Foreign Policy Decision Making in Egypt on the Eve of the Six Day War

Modern Asian Studies, Volume 53, Issue 5, September 2019 – Hero or Villain? The Evolving Legacy of Shi Lang in China and Taiwan

Murdoch, Adrian – Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre at the Teutoburg Forrest (2008)

New York Tribune, May 31st, 1883 – Fatal Panic on the Bridge

Oren, Michael – Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2002)

Popular Mechanics – The Fatal Engineering Flaws Behind the Deadliest Dam Failure in History

Shirer, William – The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (1990 Edition)

Singapore Infopedia – Hotel New World Collapse

Spencer, Charles – The White Ship: Conquest, Anarchy and the Wrecking of Henry I’s Dream (2020)

Timeline – The Deadliest Structural Failure in History Might Have Killed 170,000, and China Tried to Cover it Up

ThoughtCo – The Brooklyn Bridge Disaster

World of Chinese – The Blast That Nearly Destroyed Beijing