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."
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
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
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.