Queen Victoria’s First Wars

The British retreat from Kabul.

When on 20 June 1837 young Queen Victoria ascended the throne the realm was at peace with the world and with itself. But in December of that year there was a rebellion in Canada. William Lyon Mackenzie, a fiery little politician who had been the first mayor of Toronto, labelled his sovereign ‘Victoria Guelph, the bloody queen of England’ and attempted to create a republic in Ontario. The revolt was quickly suppressed, but Mackenzie and a handful of his followers escaped to Navy Island in the St Lawrence River just below Niagara Falls and began to fortify it. The island was Canadian, but the rebels arranged to have supplies brought to them by an American ship, the Caroline. This created an embarrassing situation for both the American and the Canadian authorities. It became an international crisis when on the night of 29 December Captain Andrew Drew and a party of Canadian militia boarded boats and crossed the narrow strip of water that connects Lake Ontario and Lake Erie and stormed aboard the Caroline. The ship was set on fire; one American was killed and two were captured. This incident, the now almost forgotten ‘Caroline Affair’, nearly started another Anglo-American war. Fortunately, tempers cooled on both sides of the border: there were no further incidents, war was averted, and Mackenzie, after spending a year in an American jail, returned to Canada and eventually became a member of the Canadian parliament, still a radical but no longer a revolutionary.

The Mackenzie revolt, although it provoked the first shots fired in anger in Victoria’s reign, caused hardly a ripple in British imperial history. But less than a year later, at the opposite end of the Empire, there was the beginning of a major event in British history: Lord Auckland, Governor-General of India, issued a ‘Declaration’, which became known as the Simla Manifesto, announcing that British troops would invade Afghanistan. This was the beginning of the First Afghan War, a war which included a most appalling disaster to a British army; a ‘signal catastrophe’, Sir John Keane called it.

Three years earlier, Dost Muhammad, the Amir of Afghanistan, had written to Lord Auckland, saying ‘consider me and my country as yours’. The expression meant no more than ‘your obedient servant’ at the end of a British letter. But Dost Muhammad soon had reason to consider the British a very literal people. He must also have considered them damnable hypocrites, for Lord Auckland had written him: ‘My friend, you are aware that it is not the practice of the British Government to interfere with the affairs of other independent states.’ No statesman ever penned a greater lie.

It is difficult for anyone to understand the reasoning behind the extraordinary attitude of the British towards Afghanistan; the Afghans must have found it impossible. While always protesting friendship, the British repeatedly invaded the country and shot at its inhabitants. Although unable to subdue the proud, fiercely independent Afghans, they always feared that Russia or Persia would, and this frequently served as an excuse for meddling in Afghan affairs.

Consider the case of Eldred Pottinger (1811–43) whose actions were so perplexing to the Afghans but so typically British. Pottinger was tall and handsome and possessed all the admired Anglo-Saxon virtues: he was brave, clever, virtuous, adventurous, and he was extremely energetic. When he was commissioned in the Bombay Horse Artillery in 1827 he founded a family tradition of service to India which has continued to the present day. In 1838, disguised as a horse trader, he entered Afghanistan as a spy. On reaching Herat he found that the city was about to be besieged by a Persian army guided by Russian advisers. He at once threw off his disguise, stopped spying on the Afghans and instead became their military adviser. The young man became, at least by all British accounts, the saviour of the city. Lord Auckland praised him as one who had ‘by his fortitude, ability, and judgment honourably sustained the reputation and interests of his country’. Although only a subaltern, Pottinger was created a Companion of the Order of the Bath and given a brevet majority.

Lord Auckland, having concluded that the British should not allow ‘Russian and Persian intrigue upon our frontiers’, decided that he should ‘attempt to save Afghanistan’ by invading the country with British, Indian and Sikh troops and overthrow its ruler. The plan was to replace Dost Muhammad with a man named Shah Shuja, a more docile Afghan noble who, although unpopular with his own people, had pretensions to the amirship. The British had been keeping him on a dole in India for just such an occasion. The plan sounds fantastic today, and so it sounded to many in London when it was explained: the Afghans were to be persuaded that the British would save them from the clutches of the Persians and Russians by invading their country with Anglo-Indian and Sikh armies – the Sikhs being the most hated enemies of the Afghans – and deposing their ruler, replacing him with a man whom they distrusted and detested!

Acting on this plan, the grandly named Army of the Indus was formed late in 1838 under the command of Sir John Keane and lumbered off into Afghanistan with Shah Shuja. All Indian armies on the march carried in their wake large numbers of transport animals and swarms of servants and camp followers, but the Army of the Indus appears to have had an exceptionally swollen baggage train. Sir John Kaye, first historian of the war and himself a Victorian soldier, justified the excess of camels, tents and luggage: The British officer, he said, ‘should not be entirely forgetful of the pleasures of the mess table, or regardless of the less social delights of the pleasant volume and the solacing pipe. Clean linen, too, is a luxury which a civilized man, without any imputation upon his soldierly qualities, may in moderation desire to enjoy.’ The fact of the matter was that while the army knew it would be marching through wild and uncivilized country, it did not expect to do much fighting. The officers had been led to believe that Shah Shuja would be welcomed back in Afghanistan and that British bayonets would intimidate his enemies. ‘There was no hint’, complained General Keane of the country, ‘that it was full of robbers, plunderers and murderers, brought up to it from their youth.’ The Army of the Indus had to fight its way to Kabul through swarms of outraged Afghans.

The first major obstacle in the path of the army was the great fortress of Ghazni. Here, in July 1839, a technique was developed which was to be repeated many times on other Afghan forts: a gate was blown in with gunpowder and the explosion was quickly followed up with an assault through the breach. It required a great deal of courage and dash, but these were qualities which the British had in abundance.

Less than a month after the fall of Ghazni the Army of the Indus reached Kabul, capital of Afghanistan. It entered the city without a fight, but also without a welcome from the glum inhabitants; Shah Shuja, fat and vain, was installed as Amir of Afghanistan.

The British spent the next few months marching about the country, knocking out pockets of organized resistance and blowing up Afghan forts. Dost Muhammad sought asylum with Nasrullah Khan, the Amir of Bokhara, who welcomed him warmly and threw him in prison. Nasrullah at this time had a collection of prisoners so interesting that he must have been the envy of all his neighbours. Included were several Russians and an Englishman, Colonel Charles Stoddart, military aide to the ambassador to Persia, who had been sent to try to secure the release of the Russians. Although they were the feared rivals, the Russians were, after all, civilized people and, like the British, were playing the same empire game in Central Asia. Then, too, there was the fear that the Russians might use the prisoners as an excuse to capture Bokhara and thus move closer to Afghanistan and India.

The British, of course, now had the best of reasons for attacking Bokhara themselves, for they could possibly release the prisoners, thwart the Russians and capture Dost Muhammad. This was discussed in high circles, but unfortunately Afghanistan was still quite unsettled and the army there had its hands full; for soldiers and politicians an attack on Bokhara was inconvenient. So instead of an army the British sent another officer, Captain Arthur Conolly, to plead with Nasrullah. When Conolly, too, was imprisoned, the Russians again tried their luck and sent a delegation to Bokhara. But Nasrullah must have tired of the game, for he sent the Russian delegation packing, beheaded his British prisoners, and allowed Dost Muhammad to escape.

The unfortunate Captain Conolly was a nephew of Sir William Macnaghten, formerly Chief Secretary in India and now Envoy to Afghanistan. It was an unlucky family. Within a three-year period, Arthur Conolly was executed in Bokhara, a brother died of fever while a prisoner of the Afghans, another brother was killed by a sniper’s bullet in Kohistan, and Macnaghten was murdered in Kabul.

It was Macnaghten who had perhaps done the most to foster the war in the first place. Now that Kabul was captured and Shah Shuja was on the throne with a British army standing by to see that he stayed there, Macnaghten the envoy was the most influential man in Afghanistan, at least as far as the law of Shah Shuja reached, which was not, in truth, very far. In the mountains and in the all-important mountain passes that led to India it was the Ghilzais who ruled. For centuries rulers of the country had always wisely bribed these wild lawless tribesmen to keep them from attacking those travelling through the passes. But Macnaghten decided to stop these payments, and the next caravan from India was promptly plundered. The routes through the passes, which constituted the British lifeline to India, were effectively closed. The envoy found it all ‘very provoking’.

The Afghans openly expressed their contempt for their new rulers, even in Kabul: British officers were insulted by shopkeepers, sentries were killed in the night, lone soldiers had their throats cut, and once an Afghan coolly walked into a tent in the British camp and shot a sleeping soldier. Yet, in spite of repeated warnings of trouble, the British were completely unprepared for the open revolt which broke out in 1841. The British forces at Kabul found themselves besieged in their ill-placed cantonments north-east of the city and in the Bala Hissar, the fort on the eastern edge of town. There were British forces at Kandahar and Ghazni, but they were shut up in their forts as well. The British leaders in Kabul, military and civil, were indecisive and quarrelled among themselves; the commanding general was old and sick. This was particularly unfortunate since only through superior discipline and leadership could the British maintain their tenuous hold on the country, for the Afghans, superb warriors and bred to their trade, were better armed: they used long-barrelled rifles, called jezails, which had a longer range and were more accurate than the soldiers’ smooth-bore muskets. Also, as Lieutenant (later General) Vincent Eyre remarked, the Afghans were ‘perhaps the best marksmen in the world’.

There were several skirmishes and small battles around the army’s indefensible cantonments; an amateurish attempt by the British to play at Afghan intrigue; a parley in which Macnaghten was murdered; and then, at last, the reluctant decision was made to retreat to India. On 6 January 1842 the British force of 4,500 troops, about 700 of whom were Britons, together with several officers’ wives and their children and about 10,000 camp followers, left their warm huts and hot breakfasts and marched out of their cantonments towards Jellalabad, about sixty miles east in a straight line, where a British force had established a strong outpost. The weather was cold in the mountain passes, below freezing, the ground covered with snow – and the Ghilzais with their long jezails were waiting for them.

Seven days later, officers of the 13th Regiment on the walls of the fort at Jellalabad saw a solitary horseman riding slowly towards them from the direction of Kabul. Horse and rider were obviously exhausted, but someone made a signal and the rider replied by waving a soldier’s forage cap. The gate was thrown open and several officers rushed out to greet Surgeon William Brydon – the sole Briton to complete the march from Kabul. Henry Havelock, one of the officers who ran out to meet him, wrote: ‘His first few sentences extinguished all hope in the hearts of listeners regarding the future of the Kabul force. It was evident that it was annihilated.’

A handful of sepoys straggled in later; there were a few other survivors, including a number of the wives and children, who had been given as hostages or were taken prisoner; but most of the army had been slaughtered in the passes by the jezails and swords of the Ghilzais. Kaye said: ‘There is nothing more remarkable in the history of the world than the awful completeness, the sublime unity of this Caubul tragedy.’ Two months later, when two of her ministers set before the young queen ‘the disastrous intelligence from Afghanistan’, she was appalled.

Jellalabad was now an isolated post perched on the edge of the enemy’s country. It was commanded by General Sir Robert Sale (1782–1845), a man who was personally very brave and who in his forty-seven years of service had seen a great deal of action in India, Burma and Mauritius. But ‘Fighting Bob’ Sale was now stout, double-chinned and cautious. He was not a strategist and he was uncomfortable when faced with important decisions and heavy responsibilities. Sale had received word of the outbreak at Kabul on 10 November 1841 when he was ordered to take his force there. He had found excuses, many of them excellent – he was encumbered with many sick and wounded – for not going to Kabul. Personal feelings certainly did not influence him, for his wife, daughter and son-in-law were there. Instead he went to Jellalabad, pursued by hostile Afghans, arriving there on 12 November with about 2,000 men: the 13th Light Infantry (about 700 men, nearly half of whom were recruits), some native troops and a few guns.

Jellalabad was a walled town, but when Sale arrived the walls were crumbling and the town’s defences were in miserable condition. Sale’s men at once began to strengthen the walls, but just as they had them in reasonably good repair, an earthquake shook many of them down again. A week after Dr Brydon’s arrival, Sale received orders to retreat to India. He was indecisive and did not know what to do. Knowledge that his son-in-law had been killed and that his wife and daughter were prisoners of the Afghans must certainly have weighed heavily on him. Like many an irresolute commander, he called a council of war. Most of the officers present were in favour of negotiating with the Afghans, who were now all around them, and attempting a retreat to India. There were, however, two strong-minded, determined and able officers, Captain Henry Havelock of the 13th Regiment, and Major George Broadfoot of the Royal Engineers, who argued strongly in favour of holding out at Jellalabad.

In the end they did stay and ‘Fighting Bob’ Sale won fame as the ‘defender of Jellalabad’. Repeated attacks by the Afghans were beaten off, several successful sorties were made and, thanks to the exertions of Broadfoot, the defences were made secure. Food supplies were running low when, on 1 April, a sortie resulted in the capture of 500 sheep. Equal distribution was made among the troops, but the 35th Native Infantry decided that their European comrades needed the meat more than they did and gave up their share to the 13th Light Infantry. Urged on by his fiery subordinates, Sale was persuaded to make an attack on the Afghan army at his gates. It was a complete success and Sale captured the enemy’s camp, baggage, guns, ammunition and horses. The remains of the Afghan army fled towards Kabul.

General George Pollock: Battle of Kabul 1842 in the First Afghan War.

As soon as the news of the disaster to the Kabul force reached India, an army of retribution was formed and it set out for Afghanistan. It was commanded by Major-General George Pollock (1786–1872), an East India Company artillery officer who had not seen active service since the Burma War of 1824 but who was sound, stolid, unflappable, and the best general available. In the event he proved to be a very good general indeed, although he was inadequately rewarded by his government and history has almost forgotten him.

Pollock began his campaign with a nearly incredible achievement: his army forced the Khyber Pass. It was the first army in history to do so. Tamberlaine had bribed the fierce Afridis who controlled the pass to allow his army to go through; Akbar the Great lost 40,000 men unsuccessfully attempting to force his way through. But Pollock did it. In September 1842 he reached and recaptured Kabul; the British prisoners were freed; General Pollock, under orders to leave in Afghanistan ‘some lasting mark of the just retribution of an outraged nation’, burned down the Great Bazaar of Kabul, and then marched his army back to India. The uncrushed Ghilzais sniped at him all the way back through the passes, but honour had been restored to British arms and the Afghans were again left to themselves.

Pollock on his victorious march relieved Sale and his men on 16 April and the name of Jellalabad was soon forgotten by most of the world – but not by the 13th Foot (later the Somerset Light Infantry). The name became an inscription on their regimental badge and, until 1959 when the 274-year-old regiment was amalgamated with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, 17 April was celebrated each year in the regiment as Jellalabad Day. Every soldier learned the story of his regiment’s deeds there. Seventy-three years after the 13th left Afghanistan, Arthur Cook, a soldier in the regiment, went over the top during the First Battle of the Somme in an unsuccessful attack on the German positions; most of his comrades were killed or wounded and he came tumbling back into his own trenches alone and feeling, he said, ‘like Dr Brydon at Jellalabad’.


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