The First Afghan War

Please welcome Victorian author Frances Evesham to my blog. Frances told me she can’t believe her luck, spending her days writing and collecting grandsons, Victorian trivia, and stories of ancestors. She’s fascinated by the Victorians and has written a second novel, a historical mystery titled Danger at Thatcham Hall. In it, Major Nelson Roberts is haunted by his experiences in the Kabul campaign, and, with that in mind, here is her post on the First Afghan War.

Frances Evesham.

The Afghan Wars of the 19th century began in 1837, sparked by the concerns of British politicians over the Russian Tzar Nicholas I’s plans to expand his country’s influence into neighbouring India. Fed local information by Alexander Burnes, an explorer and writer in the 1830s, they decided the best course of action would be to depose the current Russian-friendly ruler of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammed. Their preferred replacement, Shah Shujah, Mohammed’s rival, was expected to maintain peaceful relations with Dost Mohammed’s old enemy, Ranjit Singh from Indian Punjab.

Bad Omen The proposed invasion began badly, when a grand parade, designed to display the combined might of 9,500 British-led troops and 6,000 of Shah Shujar’s followers, ran into trouble. Using elephants to showcase their might proved to be a mistake. The animals in the British line ran into some of Ranjit Singh’s own elephants, and the elderly Indian was pitched ignominiously to the ground.

Logistics Camp followers, a feature of British armies, consisted of families and servants living with their menfolk, as well as plenty of ‘ladies’ who provided unsalubrious services to soldiers. Vast numbers of these followers ramped up the size of the invading force and complicated the already tricky logistics of carrying sufficient supplies through difficult, mountainous terrain. The British commanding officer, for example, needed 260 camels just to carry his own possessions. In all, by the time the troops were joined by a following force, 21,000 soldiers and their followers under the command of Sir John Keane struggled to find sufficient food and water.

'Remnants of an Army' by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842, Courtesy of Wikipedia

‘Remnants of an Army’ by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Bloodless coup 
Morale dropped sharply. Sir William Macnaghten, the political secretary advising the generals, suggested British troops hold back and allow Shah Shujah to march into Kandahar with his own men. This proved a sensible tactic, as he met with no resistance. Victorious, he matched his troops through the streets and ordered a 101 gun salute. There was, however, a clear sign that all was not well: no Afghan came out to watch the victory parade.

The British continued their advance on Kabul, blowing the gate at Ghazni and occupying the town, although not without one of the blunders that seemed to dog the campaign, when a bugler called the retreat by mistake, causing temporary confusion. Nevertheless, the fortress at Ghazni was now held by the British.

Dost Mohammed, the Afghan ruler who had been linked to Russia, surrendered and was peacefully replaced by Shah Shujah, the British choice.

Emboldened, the Kritish marched on, soon reaching and taking Kabul as Dost Mohammed fled, setting up a garrison town in a cantonment just outside the city.

British tactlessness
Unfortunately, the invaders took little trouble to make themselves popular in the region. To the horror of the Afghan people, they drank alcohol to excess, married some local women and ‘entertained’ many more. They began to enjoy themselves, bringing over their wives and children and amusing themselves with cricket, Afghan wrestling, betting and cock-fights. At the same time, confident of their success and recognising the huge costs of keeping a garrison town in the wilds of Afghanistan, the British reduced payments to the tribes who controlled the passes, including the vital Kyber Pass. This infuriated the Afghans and an officer was murdered out in the hills. To make matters worse, an aging, infirmed officer, Major General William Elphinstone, suffering from gout, was put in charge of the garrison.

The beginning of disaster
On 1 November 1841, Major General Elphinstone fell off his horse. Worse was to follow. Alexander Burnes, the vital British source of information, found his house surrounded by a crowd of angry locals, who believed the soldiers’ pay and stacks of gold were kept in the next house. As Burnes, his brother and an officer, Major Broadfoot, remonstrated with the crowd, a single shot hit and killed the Major.

As the crowd’s anger rose to a frenzy, both the Burnes brothers were hacked to death, along with 30 servants and colleagues. Major General Elphinstone, not yet recovered from his tumble, did nothing. Soon, patrols on the roads were attacked as the Afghans rose up against the British interlopers, the uprising led by Akbar Khan, the son of Dost Mohammed.

Defeat at Kabul
On 23 November, the British army brushed off an attack by two guns on the cantonment. Confident, they moved out to follow the attackers into their villages. Their method was fatally flawed as their guns quickly overheated. The soldiers formed two squares, as they were used to doing, but afghan fighters stood back, well out of reach of the muskets and mowed down the soldiers with handmade, longer range muskets, called jezails. A band of Afghans attacked from a hidden gully and the British troops were routed, running back to the cantonment, leaving their wounded behind.

The retreat
On 6 January, 1842, leaving a group of hostages to the mercies of Akbar Khan and abandoning Shah Shujah, the army left the cantonment, heading for Jellalabad. The 44th Regiment of Foot, with a small number of cavalry and plenty of women and children, a body of around 16,000, managed to travel only five miles on the first day, through steep mountain passes, in the freezing cold of an Afghan winter.

Believing that the Afghans would proceed according to European practices in war, the British accepted Akbar’s promises to negotiate a safe passage with the tribes ahead, and waited while he sent ahead to warn the population. This gave the tribes time to prepare their attacks. The result was the death of 3,000 of the British force in one day as the Afghans fired from the hills down into the pass. Only fifteen cavalrymen managed to escape.

The final battle
A last stand at Gundamak saw 65 infantrymen surrounded by Afghans. Refusing the Afghan promise of safety in return for weapons, they formed a square and fought to the death as their bullets ran out, leaving only swords and bayonets. Four were captured; the rest were killed in the battle.

The cavalry, meanwhile, were offered food in a village, Futtehabad. As they ate, Afghans rushed into the village, chasing any riders who escaped.

Only one man survived from the 16,000 who had left Ghazni a week earlier: Dr Brydon rode the remaining 15 miles to safety, arriving at last, alone, at the British garrison at Jellalabad.


A full version of this First Afghan War, and information on subsequent British action in Afghanistan, is available on The British Empire website. The wars in Afghanistan during the 19th century are also referenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: John Watson, the friend and amanuensis of Sherlock Holmes, was wounded in the second Afghan War.


Danger at Thatcham Hall Cover

Danger at Thatcham Hall Cover

To learn more about Frances Evesham, you can visit her website by clicking here, and, if you are interested in learning more about Danger at Thatcham Hall, a brief summary follows:

Ambitious lawyer Nelson Roberts, jilted by his fiancée and embittered by war, trusts no one. He jumps at the chance to make a name for himself solving a series of mysterious thefts and violence at Thatcham Hall, a country house in Victorian England.

Olivia Martin, headstrong and talented, dreams of a career as a musician. She’ll do anything it takes to avoid a looming miserable fate as a governess.

If you wish to obtain Frances’s book, she has provided the following buy links:

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Wild Rose Press  
Barnes and Noble

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