Graveyard of Empires: Britain’s First Afghan War



Remnants of on Army by Elizabeth Butler


If your officer’s dead and the sergeants look white

Remember it’s ruin to run from a fight

Just keep open order, lie down, and sit tight

And wait for supports like a soldier


In the mid 19th Century, both the British Empire and the Russian Empire vied for control in Central Asia. With their base in India, the British pushed their imperialist banner northward towards Afghanistan in an attempt to keep the Russians out. The Russians, in the meantime, had a handy alliance with Persia and backed an anti-British ruler in Afghanistan. The British decide to oust him. Their cover story was that they were not invading, but merely aiding the legitimate ruler. Typical British Imperialist nonsense.

European countries, and the United States, held imperialist ambitions for a couple of reasons. First, they sought raw materials to feed their growing economies. Second, they needed new markets for finished products. Finally, there was a racial component that we cannot deny. Europeans felt that they had a right to any territory formerly held by people who were black, brown, yellow, or red. Consider, for example, Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”. At the same time the British were fighting their First Afghan War, they were also fighting the Opium War with China in an attempt to force the Chinese to trade with them. Hell, if you’re gonna fight a war, opium is as good a cause as anything else! To the victor belongs the………pipe.

In 1839 a large force of around 16,000 British and Sepoy (Indian) troops marched through the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan. They brought a staggering 35,000 or so camp followers with them. They included merchants, journalists, cobblers, blacksmiths, and, of course, prostitutes. I believe it was General Sherman who said a soldier who won’t f–k won’t fight! They reached Kabul and deposed the pro-Russian ruler and replaced him with one more friendly to the British government, or at least one who was under their control. The British wisely decided not to attempt to pacify Afghanistan since that would be impossible. Instead, they just used their puppet ruler to keep Russian influence to a minimum. But they made a tragic mistake. Custom dictated that the local ruler in Kabul pay monthly tribute to the Pashtuns who controlled the mountain passes. The ruler cut the tribute in half with no warning. Angered by this insult, the Ghilazis closed the Khyber Pass and cut Afghanistan off from India. This dilemma was made worse by the fact that the British sent the majority of their troops home the previous year since they didn’t think they would need them anymore. I believe we call that an “Oops”.


Khyber Pass


At around 9am on January 6, 1842, the Kabul garrison consisting of 4,500 British and Sepoy troops and around 16,000 camp followers set out from the city, marching through deep snow. Along the way, Afghan snipers took shots at the column whenever the opportunity presented itself. Given the difficult terrain which favored irregular warfare, the British were unprepared for what they faced. 3,000 of them died in the Khurd-Kabul Pass. At one point, their commander ventured out to meet with the Afghan commander and was taken hostage. The Afghan’s offered to take all of the married officers and their wives into their camp for “protection” which they did, but they became hostages instead. The column marched on, or tried to, and was slaughtered. Near Gandamak, the 44th Regiment of Foot mounted a desperate last stand. With only a handful of men with a few rounds each, they responded to a demand to surrender with “Not bloody likely”.  Only one man, Dr. William Bryden, reached Jalalabad with the scene immortalized in the painting at the top of the post. Later, around 150 other survivors would be rescued or would straggle in to British outposts. All told, this was a disaster of epic proportions and not a very good day for the British Empire.


The Retreat From Afghanistan by A.D. McCromick


The British rarely respond well to getting their asses kicked by people they consider to be inferior, and this is certainly the case here. The raised a new army in India, calling it the Army of Retribution. They set out for Kabul to bring vengeance upon the heathen who had so thoroughly trounced them before. When they arrived in Kabul, they destroyed the city’s Great Bazaar and the soldiers went on a rampage of looting, murder, and rapine, all done with the sanction of the British commanders. Things settled down for a while as the British were again content to simply control enough to keep the Russians out. This allowed them to meet their objective and also to grant the Afghans a nominal amount of independence. A little over one hundred years later, the Russians would enter Afghanistan on their own and find the Afghans to be just as fierce fighters as the British had during the 19th Century.

When your wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains

And the women come out to cut up what remains

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

And go to your God like a soldier

–“The Young British Soldier” by Rudyard Kipling


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