Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Story of Afghanistan

Quoth he: "Of the Russians, who can say?

When the night is gathering, all is grey;

But we look that the gloom of the night shall die

In the morning flush of a blood-red sky."

— Kipling

I F the Burmese had proved troublesome neighbours on the eastern frontier of India, yet more tiresome neighbours dwelt on the other side of the north-west boundary. Here lies the great region of Afghanistan, guarded by the gigantic range of the Hindu Kush—the highway between Persia and India, and, yet more important, the highway between Russia and the British dominions in India.

Early in the nineteenth century, the ruler or Amir of Afghanistan, made an alliance with Russia. This alliance was regarded with alarm by the British, as Russia had long threatened an advance on India, the road to which land would now lie open. So in January 1839, a large British and Indian army crossed the Indus, advanced unopposed through the Bolan Pass to the fortress of Quetta, took possession of Kandahar, fought their way through Ghazni, took Jelalabad, and entered Kabul. Dost Mahomed fled from the capital with a few horsemen to the mountains of the Hindu Kush, and an exiled Afghan prince was proclaimed Amir in his stead. The conquest of the country was considered complete, but the English had altogether mistaken the character of the Afghans. Small rebellions, headed by Akbar Khan, a son of Dost Mahomed, took place. The British Resident, Sir William Macnaghten, was warned of coming danger, which he disregarded, till one day he learned the horrible news, that two English officials had been surrounded and butchered in cold blood by Afghans. A few weeks later, he agreed to meet Akbar Khan at a conference on the banks of a neighbouring river near Kabul, to discuss plans. The conference had hardly begun, when the Amir drew from his belt a pair of pistols, which Macnaghten had given him, and shot the unfortunate Englishman dead. After such treachery, the only safety for the British garrison at Kabul lay in retreat. Akbar Khan promised to protect the army, if it would return at once to India.

On January 6, 1842, the troops left the Afghan capital. It was the heart of a cruel winter. Snow and ice lay thickly on the great passes of Khurd Kabul and Kyber, which had to be climbed before the plains of India could be reached. The first of these was a terrible gorge, running some five miles between mountain-ranges, narrow, high, and dark, with a mountain-torrent rushing fiercely down from the hills. As men, women, and children made their way along this snowy pass, crowds of savage Afghans from the rocks above, shot them down one by one. In hopeless confusion, they staggered on; Akbar took pity on the women and children, and put them in a safe place till the fury of his people should be past. On pushed the soldiers. After five days' march, out of the 14,500 men, who had left Kabul, only 4000 remained. Each day the massacre was resumed. At last only sixty-five were left out of the mighty host that had started. These forced their way on towards Jelalabad, which was held by an English garrison. One man alone survived. Weary and fainting from exhaustion, Dr. Brydon staggered into the city, to tell the tale of one of the most awful catastrophes in the history of mankind. The disaster was retrieved later, by another advance on Kabul, which ended in the rout of Akbar Khan.

Time passed on. Another of Dost Mahomed's sons succeeded to the Afghan throne—Shere Ali Khan—who was no more friendly to the English than his brother had been. When relations between Russia and England were sorely strained, he received and welcomed a Russian mission at Kabul, refusing the British demand for a like concession.

Negotiations ended in war. Once more British troops marched by Jelalabad and Kandahar to Kabul. Shere Ali fled from his capital, his son, Yakub Khan, was proclaimed Amir, and a treaty of peace was signed, by which the Amir agreed to allow an Englishman to reside at Kabul. In 1879, the British resident arrived and took up his abode in the Residency at Kabul. Suddenly the news fell like a thunderbolt, that the terrible tragedies of former years had been repeated. The English in Kabul had been attacked, and after gallant resistance, had been cut to pieces by the Afghans.

Yet once again British troops, under Lord Roberts, marched to the Afghan capital. Yakub Khan surrendered and was exiled to India, while Abdur Rahman, the eldest grandson of Dost Mahomed, was proclaimed Amir. A good soldier and a good statesman was Abdur Rahman, who ruled his country for the next twenty years, but the early part of his reign was clouded by the rising of his cousin, who wished to be Amir. In the summer of 1880, this dangerous rival marched towards Kandahar with a large following of Afghan cavalry, and on July 27, one of the most grievous disasters in the history of the British army took place at Maiwand, when an English brigade was annihilated by the new pretender to the throne. This is the story. To stop the advancing Afghan army, General Burrows had marched forth with British troops towards Maiwand, on the Helmond river, when suddenly the whole Afghan army charged down on the little force. The British blunder was redeemed by magnificent heroism, and there is no finer record in history than that of the famous Sixty-sixth, or Royal Berkshire Regiment, rallying again and again in the face of overwhelming odds, till at the last the soldiers formed a square, and fighting back to back, died to a man.

To redeem British prestige and suppress the victorious rival, Lord Roberts now made his historic march from Kabul to Kandahar, to relieve the hard-pressed garrison there. It was a distance of 300 miles, haunted by bands of hostile Afghans, who might attack them at any moment. But Lord Roberts was equal to the task. After twenty days of hard marching he brought his 10,000 men safe to Kandahar, where he soon put Ayub Khan to flight and saved a difficult situation. From this time Abdur Rahman reigned over his difficult country in peace and friendship with the British in India, till in 1901 he died and was succeeded by his eldest son Habibullah as Amir of Afghanistan.

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