Massacre and Humiliation in Afghanistan
The 13th of January 1842 AD
British history is peppered with acts of heroism, ingenuity and endurance by our armed forces. Sadly it is also littered with the recurring follies of politicians and frequent inadequacies of generals. For every Wellington and Waterloo there is a Charles Warren and Spion Kop . But William Elphinstone in the First Afghan War stands alone as both incompetent and craven.
There are chilling echoes of that mid-19th century conflict today: the country was invaded with ease to protect other regional interests; an unpopular ruler was installed; only Kabul was under effective control; and to keep unruly tribes peaceful they were bribed until that became unaffordable.
Isolated in Kabul, with relief forces unable to cross frozen passes to help, the 4500-strong East India Company army (about 900 British, the other 3600 Indian), along with 12,000 civilians, tried to flee to Jalalabad and safety on January 6 1842. Major-General Elphinstone, in command of the expedition, had allowed the murder of a senior administrator and the slaughter of a party agent sent to negotiate safe-passage to go unpunished. Worse, he then idiotically agreed to give the best muskets, much of the gunpowder, and most of the artillery of his force to the enemy, hoping for good treatment. The first pass on their route was only 10 miles distant, but Elphinstone halted halfway to rest, allowing the Afghans to seize and fortify it.
The moment the column left Kabul the slaughter began: the sick left behind were massacred; stragglers picked off; and in ambushes and skirmishes en route thousands perished. On January 11 some of the grand ladies in the party gave themselves up as hostages, the servants with them all killed. Disgustingly Elphinstone and his second-in-command also surrendered themselves, throwing the rest to the wolves.
On January 13 the tiny remnant of the column fought until the last nine were captured. The Afghans apparently let one man, badly injured medic William Brydon, make his way to Jalalabad that same day. Asked what had become of the army he replied: “I am the army.”
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