The British 1842 Kabul Campaign

The following unusually interesting and well-written narrative is borrowed from James Morris "Heaven's Command". The book, written in the 1960s, deal with the British Empire in general, and the title does not refer to the 1842 Kabul campaign - where "Hell's Command" would be a more fitting title.

Between the two [England and Russia] the Afghan kingdom stood glowering and secretive, inhabited by some of the most warlike peoples on the face of the earth, and veiled always in intrigue.

It was little-known to Europeans, except by disrepute. Its capital, Kabul, lay deep within the mountains at 6,000 feet, clustered at the foot of a medieval citadel, the Bala Hissar, on a desolate gravel plain; a foxy, evasive kind of city, riddled with xenophobia and conspiracy, and living it seemed always on its nerves. All around were unmapped, bald and inhospitable highlands, pierced by narrow ravines and deep river-beds, traversed only by rough tracks. The kingdom made its living by plunder and agriculture, for the Muslim Afghans thought trade an ignoble occupation, and left it to foreigners. The general character of the people was at once savagely independent and desperately unpredictable. The Afghans could be lively, humorous, courageous, even warm-hearted; but they could also bigoted, sly and murderous. They were uncompromisingly picturesque.

The women were enveloped head to foot in the white cylinder of the burkha, with only a mesh at the eyes to demonstrate the human presence within. The men wore huge turbans, or satin caps with gold brocade crowns, with leather boots buttoned up to the calf, huge sheepskin cloaks over their shoulders, and shirts with wide sleeves for the concealment of daggers or phials. The Afghans were not only implacably chauvinist, they also fought incessantly among themselves, for they were split into great tribal divisions the Durranis, the Ghilzais, the Barakzais — and sub- divided multitudinously into clans — Hazarahs, Tajiks, Sadozais, Khaibaris, Afridis — not to speak of innumerable Pathan groupings on the southern border, and Tartars and Uzbegs in the north. All these groups had their own characteristics, their own traditions and their own loyalties, and they made Afghanistan extraordinarily difficult for a foreigner to understand, and almost impossible to govern. There had been eight changes of royal dynasty in the past half—century, deposed monarchs generally being murdered, but sometimes only blinded.

The British made it to Kabul and started to settle in. Things looked quite cheery. Even a skating rink was organized. But under the surface things were worrisome. Assassinations were not uncommon, and daggers were quickly drawn and used in the dark corners of the bazaar. Rather unexpected the Afghans lead by Akhbar made the British presence untenable. After having many killed, the British agreed to retreat to Jalalabad, to be escorted by some of Akhbar’s men.

On 6 January 1842, the army began its retreat, the most terrible in the history of British arms, and the completion of a tragedy whose 'awful completeness', as the historian Sir John Kaye to write, was unexampled in the history of the world. To the safety of the British garrison at Jalalabad, the force had to travel through ninety miles of desolate mountain country, deep in snow held in fief by the predatory Ghilzais, and now additionally infested With Ghazis too. The cold was terrible, and the march began in confusion. In all some 16,500 souls struggled out of the cantonment; about 700 Europeans, 3,800 Indian soldiers, the rest camp-followers and their families. More than a thousand horses went with them, together with bullocks to pull the carts, camels, mules and ponies. Most of the European women and children travelled in camel-panniers; the camp-followers straggled along behind as best they could, frightened, bewildered, littered with babies, and cooking-pots, and all the voluminous half-fastened baskets, boxes and bundles that poor Indians carried on the march.

The moment the last soldiers of the rearguard left the cantonment gates, the mob poured in to plunder and destroy; and hovering always on the fringe of the column, sometimes sending peremptory messages to the general, sometimes coming close, sometimes disappearing, the chiefs of the Afghans predatorily rode. The retreat was a misery from the first step. As the troops marched in tolerable order along the snow-covered track across the plain, the camp-followers in their thousands milled all about the column, turning the march into a muddled rout, pushing their way frantically towards the front, shouting and jostling, separating platoon from platoon, soldiers from their officers. Sometimes troops of Ghazi horsemen dashed among them, slashing with their sabres and galloping off with loot; the rearguard lost fifty men almost before it had left the lines. So it was obvious from the start that the Afghan assurances meant nothing. If the escort of chiefs was capable of keeping off the Ghazis and Ghalzais, it had no intention of doing so; this would be cat and mouse to the end. Within an hour or two many of the soldiers were frostbitten, while hundreds of the Indian bearers threw down their loads in despair and ran away into the wilderness. Before it had left the valley the army was virtually without food, fuel, shelter or ammunition, and behind it left a trail of dead and dying people, like a track of litter after a grisly holiday — some wide—eyed and insensible, some pleading to be put out of their misery, some stabbed about with knives, for the fun of it, by the Afghan children who swarmed through the mélee. When the British camped for the first night, only six miles from the city, they looked back to see the night sky red and flickering with the flames of the burning cantonment; and when the rearguard arrived in the small hours, exhausted from its running day-long battle, and its soldiers shouted in the darkness, 'Where's the 54th? Where's the 6th?', they found the camp in a state of nightmare chaos, men and women dying all around from hunger and exposure, and were told everywhere, as they looked for their units, that 'no one knew anything about it'.

The retreat lasted just a week. During the first three days the way led through a series of precipitous passes, most of them 5,000 feet high and all deep in snow, and day by day the struggling mass of the British and their dependants grew smaller and weaker. They were never left at peace. Now and then they saw their escort chiefs, cloaked upon their horses upon distant knolls, or awaiting their arrival at the head of a pass, and sometimes Akhbar himself appeared with a demand for hostages, a gloating recrimination, or ever less convincing assurances of goodwill. Each day the harassment grew more brazen, until every gully seemed to bide an ambush of horsemen, and there were marksmen on every ridge. Terrible scenes were enacted in the snows. We see Lieutenant Melville of the 54th Native Infantry, speared and stabbed in back and head, crawling after the column on his hands and knees. We see Dr Cardew of the medical service, fearfully wounded, tied to the last gun and left beside the road to die, while his soldiers mumble their goodbyes to him. We see Mrs Boyd and her son Hugh, aged four, tumbled out of their panniers as the camel that carries them is hit by a bullet and crumples slowly, groaning, to its knees in the snow. In the middle of the carnage, the hunger, the cold, the terror, we see an Indian deserter from the Mission guard, blindfold and ragged, shot on the spot by a firing-squad.

On the fourth day Akhbar sent a message to Elphinstone suggesting that the Englishwomen should be handed over to his care. Eleven women and their children, including Lady Sale and Lady Macnaghten, were handed over to the care of the Afghans, together oddly enough with several of their husbands; they were taken away to a little fort in the hills, and fed that night on mutton and rice. By then the fighting strength of the army was down to 300 British infantry, about 480 sepoys, and 170 cavalrymen, most of them frostbitten, many snow—blind, many more without weapons or ammunition. They had passed through the first of the great passes, and there were seventy miles to go. By the end of the fifth day the last of the sepoys were dead or missing, and no baggage was left at all. For miles the track was thick with the corpses of the Camp-followers. Perhaps 12,000 people had died since they left Kabul, only a few thousand Indians survived, and the only people fighting back were the men of the 44th Regiment and the 5th Light Cavalry. They had passed through the second and third of the passes, and were fifty miles from Jalalabad.

On the sixth and seventh days the survivors struggled through the worst of all the ravines, the Jugdulluk, an allegorically gloomy defile, where the winding track passed between immense impending crags, and only a few scraggly holly oaks broke through the snow. Here the Afghans had blocked the way with a barrier of prickly ilex, six feet high. The soldiers fell upon it with their bare hands, while a fury of fire was poured at them from the ridges on either side, and Ghilzai horsemen galloped mercilessly among them — scrabbling frantically away with their frostbitten fingers, dying in their hundreds, until at last a gap made in the barricade and there was a mad rush of horsemen and foot-soldiers through it, the horses rearing, the shots flying, crazed soldiers sometimes shooting at their friends, and into the confusion the Afghans falling with their knives and long swords to leave the snow stained with blood, mashed about with footfalls, and littered with redcoat bodies. By the eighth day the army had no commander. Summoned to a conference at Akhbar's camp, Elphinstone had been held there as a hostage, and his soldiers never saw him again. But by now there was virtually no army either; only some twenty officers and forty-five British soldiers had survived the slaughter in the Jugdulluk. At a hamlet called Gandamack they found themselves surrounded by Afghans and called to a parley - a handful of emaciated, exhausted and mostly unarmed Britons, with Captain Souter of the 44th wearing the regimental colours wound about his waist. It was a trick. The soldiers were slaughtered, only half a dozen being taken prisoner. The only survivors of the army now, apart from a few wandering sepoys, were fourteen horsemen, who, by-passing Gandamack, had galloped desperately towards Jalalabad — twenty miles away.

By the ninth day six survived — three captains, a lieutenant and two army doctors, one of whom, Dr Brydon, had already lost his horse, and had been given a pony by a wounded subahdar of the native infantry — 'take my horse', the Indian had said, ‘and God send you may get to Jalalabad in safety'. At Futtehabad, sixteen miles from Jalalabad, the officers found themselves kindly welcomed by the villagers, who offered them food, and urged them to rest for a while; two of them were murdered there and then, three more were killed as they fled the place. So there remained, on 13 January 1842, only one survivor of the Kabul army — Surgeon Brydon, Army Medical Corps, galloping desperately over the last few miles to Jalalabad, Afghans all around him like flies, throwing stones at him, swinging sabres, reducing him in the end to the hilt of his broken sword, which he threw in a horseman's face. And quite suddenly, in the early afternoon, Brydon found himself alone. The Afghans had faded away. There was nobody to be seen. Not a sound broke the cold air. He plodded on through the snow exhausted, leaning on the pony's neck, and presently he saw in the distance the high mud walls of Jalalabad, with the Union Jack flying above. He took his forage cap from his head and feebly waved. The fortress gates opened; a group of officers ran out to greet him; and so the retreat from Kabul, and the first of Queen Victoria's imperial wars, came to its grand and terrible end. 'Did I not say so?' Said Colonel Dennie, who was watching from the walls. 'Here comes the messenger.’