Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The First Afghan War

In 1837 the ruler of Afghanistan was called Dost Muhammad. He was a rough soldier, young and brave, and he had proved himself a good ruler of Afghanistan, although he had no real right to the throne. Afghanistan, like other countries, had been torn with wars and revolts. The real ruler, Shah Shuja, had fled, and was now living in India under British protection.

Ever since the days of Peter the Great, Russia has been spreading her empire southward until; "Russian designs on India" have become a sort of nightmare to Indian rulers, for now only Afghanistan lies between British India and Russia.

But in 1837 the Punjab had not yet become a part of British India, and it also lay between, and its ruler, Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Lahore, was friendly to the British. The British wanted to make sure that Afghanistan was also friendly, and Lord Auckland, who was now Governor-General, sent a messenger to the court of Afghanistan. This messenger was supposed to be going to arrange about trade. But trade had little to do with it. He really went to persuade the Afghans to be friends with the British, and to make war, if need be, with the Russians.

There had been war between the Afghans and Ranjit Singh, and he had taken part of Afghanistan called the Peshawar valley. Dost Muhammad was very anxious to get this back again, and was willing to promise the British anything if they would help him to get it.

But as Ranjit Singh and the British were friends, Lord Auckland refused. It was not the habit of the British, he said, to interfere in quarrels between other states. So his messenger came back from Afghanistan without having been able to arrange anything. And at the same time a Russian messenger was kindly received there.

Lord Auckland then made up his mind, that as Dost Muhammad would not do as he wanted, he would put a king on the throne who would. So he sent an army into Afghanistan to drive Dost Muhammad from the throne, and set foolish old Shah Shuja upon it.

This was surely folly, for the Afghans were well content with their ruler. They hated Shah Shuja, who was proud and haughty, and "neither a soldier nor a gentleman." Years before they had driven him out, and now that he was old and stupid, they certainly did not want him back again.

Ranjit Singh, although he was quite friendly, wanted to have as little to do with the British as possible. Now he refused to allow our army to pass through his lands. So it was obliged to go by Sind, which at this time was not under British rule. But the ruler of Sind was not so strong as Ranjit Singh, and so was unable to prevent the army passing through his land.

It was a long, weary march that now began. At first the roads were good. Then came long tracts of pathless desert where wild hill-men attacked the soldiers. The country was barren, and food grew scarce. Half starved and weary the army at last arrived at Kandahar.

Here the Shah rode in triumph through the town. Crowds of people thronged the streets, but it was curiosity, not love, that brought them. Along a path strewn with roses, with beat of drum and thunder of guns, and the shouts of a half-hearted few in his ears, the Shah rode to the tomb of his forefathers, to give thanks for his restoration.

Thus far there had been little fighting. Now there was a fierce battle, when Ghazni, the strongest fortress in Afghanistan, was taken. When Dost Muhammad heard the news he fled, and a few weeks later Shah Shuja rode in triumph into Kabul.

Seated upon a white horse, gorgeously clad, and sparkling with jewels, surrounded and followed by splendidly dressed servants, the Shah rode towards the palace from which, thirty years before, he had been hunted out. With him rode the British officers in their gayest uniforms. But as the glittering procession passed through the streets there was never a cheer. The sullen, scowling Afghans scarcely turned their heads to look at their returned king, or at the hated white-faced "Feringees" who had brought him.

Lord Auckland had said that as soon as the king was seated again upon his throne the British army would leave Afghanistan. But now that was found to be impossible. The Shah was indeed once more upon his throne, but it was only the glitter of English gold, and the gleam of English bayonets, that kept him there. The people did not want him, and it was easily seen that as soon as the British left, they would drive the Shah away once more.

So ten thousand British soldiers stayed in Afghanistan, and thousands of pounds in good British gold were paid to the wild hill-men to keep them quiet. Months passed, Dost Muhammad yielded himself a prisoner, the people were sunk in a gloomy, sullen quiet. The British believed that they were conquered, that they had accepted the ruler thrust upon them. English ladies came from India to join their husbands and brothers. Soon, in the heart of Afghanistan, the British had settled down to the gay social life of home. In summer they shot, and fished, and rode. In winter they skated and danced. And all the time they were making merry on a volcano, all the time the hatred of the Afghans seethed and boiled in secret.

At last it burst out. Early on the morning of the 2nd of November 1841 the streets of Kabul were filled with angry crowds. As the hours went on, the crowds grew denser and wilder. Thirsting for blood, eager for revenge, they attacked the houses of the British. Men, women, and children were slaughtered. Houses were robbed, wrecked, and burned. The whole town was one seething mass of uproar and riot. Mad with blood, the Afghans became cursing, howling beasts.

Yet the British did little or nothing. They had six thousand troops ready to command. But no orders were given. "We must see what the morning brings, and then think what can be done," said the commander. He waited to think "to-morrow" when he ought to have been acting. So all day the riot raged, and it was only with the falling darkness that the city sank once more to rest.

Next day things grew worse. From every side Afghans poured into the city. Seeing that the British had not crushed the rioters at once, every man took heart again, and did his best to drive the hated foreigners out. Day after day passed, days of horror, filled with fighting, with mistakes, with misfortunes, with commands given and withdrawn, with misery and confusion.

The Afghans commanded the surrounding hills. They were splendid marksmen, and their guns carried farther than the British muskets. Secure upon the heights they aimed at leisure, and the British went down before them like slaughtered sheep.

The fort, in which food for the British army was stored, fell into the hands of the Afghans. Hungry and weary the men lost heart, and discipline was at an end. "Our troops are acting like a pack of cowards and there is no spirit left amongst us. We have only three days" provisions for our men and nothing for our cattle," writes one.

At last even the blindest had to admit that there was nothing left but to get out of Afghanistan as best and as fast as they could.

So the British Ambassador had a meeting with the Afghan chiefs. At this meeting it was agreed that Dost Muhammad should be given back to the Afghans, and, that in return, the British army should be allowed to march out of Afghanistan in safety.

But even now there were delays. The Ambassador began to think that he might make better terms, and that after all he would not need to march back in the disgrace of defeat. He began to plot with some of the Afghan chiefs. But they had only led him in order to destroy him, and when he met with them upon the hill slopes outside the town, he was foully murdered in broad daylight. His body was then cut to pieces, and his head was carried through the town in triumph. And the British were powerless to avenge the insult. Days of humiliation and misery followed, but at last everything was arranged, and the long march homeward began.

Four thousand soldiers and twelve thousand camp followers, many of them women and children—ladies, unused to hardship, children unable to walk—streamed out of the fatal town into the country beyond. They meant to make their way to Jellalabad, where there was a British garrison.

It was a clear and sunny winter's morning, but bitterly cold, and snow lay thick upon the ground. Hardly had the British left their houses when the Afghans swarmed into them seeking plunder. They found little, for the British had carried away or destroyed all that they possessed. So in their disappointment and rage the Afghans wrecked the houses and set them on fire. Then they followed the retreating army.


"Crushed by rolling stones, mown down by volleys of musket-shot, the men fell in hundreds."

Soon the white snow was trampled and brown, and stained with blood, and all the ways were strewn with dead and dying. It was a bad beginning to the long march, and as it began, so it went on. While the crowd of men, women, and children, wound through the narrow valleys, the wild hill tribes rushed down upon them from the heights, slaughtering them without mercy. The march became a headlong flight. In the frantic rush, baggage, ammunition, provisions, all were left behind. Without tents, without food or shelter, many lay down to die in the snow. Attacked by their pitiless enemies, they could scarce defend themselves. Muskets dropped from their numbed, frost-bitten fingers, and they were mown down like corn before the reaper.

The son of Dost Muhammad, who had promised that the army should march in safety, was powerless against the wild hill tribes. But he now offered to take care of the ladies and the children, and with heavy hearts the men gave them into his keeping. It was a terrible risk, for how could any one be sure that they would not all be murdered horribly. Yet there was a chance that this wild Afghan would keep his word and bring them to safety, and if they went on with the army, they must all certainly die of the hardships of the way. The Afghan chief did keep his word, and months later all those left in his charge returned home in safety.

Faint with hunger, sick and numb with cold, the men continued the march. But they could not escape from their savage black enemies. Crushed by rolling stones, mowed down by volleys of musket shot, cut to pieces by knives, pierced by bayonets, the men fell by hundreds, and the army grew smaller and smaller.

At last, on the morning of the thirteenth of January, a sentry on the ramparts of Jellalabad looked out along the road from Kabul. There he saw one lone traveller come. He rode a lean and wretched pony, and bent forward, clinging to its mane like one in deadly agony. Soon the wall was thick with anxious men straining eager eyes towards the lonely horseman. As they gazed, their hearts sank within them. It seemed as if he were the messenger of some dark mischance. Then flinging themselves into the saddle, a party rode out to meet him.

Stricken, wan, more dead than alive, they brought him in. And when his white lips could speak, they learned that he alone, of all the sixteen thousand who had set out from Kabul, was alive to tell the tale of that awful journey of a hundred miles through mountain passes, beset with foes.

From first to last the expedition to Afghanistan had been a mistake, and the British had to acknowledge that they had been beaten. But they could not remain beaten. Besides, there were those hundred or more women and children in the hands of the Afghans who must be rescued.

So an army was sent to avenge the defeat. Once again Kabul was taken, once again the British flag was planted upon the ramparts. But meanwhile Shah Shuja had been murdered, so Dost Muhammad came back to his throne, and the British army marched away to India leaving the Afghans to themselves.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Sati and Thags  |  Next: The Sikhs
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.