First Anglo-Afghan War: Wikis


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First Anglo-Afghan War
Part of The Great Game
Remnants of an army2.jpg
Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler depicting William Brydon who was the sole British survivor after Britain's catastrophic retreat from Kabul.
Date 1839–1842
Location Afghanistan
Result Afghan victory[1]

British withdrawal from Afghanistan[2]

Afghanistan Afghanistan United Kingdom United Kingdom
Dost Mohammad #,
Akbar Khan
William Hay Macnaghten  ,
John Keane,
William Elphinstone #,
George Pollock
Casualties and losses
Unknown 4,500 killed[3]
Afghan civilians = Unknown
British (Indian) civilians = 12,000 killed[4]
History of Afghanistan
Emblem of Afghanistan
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The First Anglo–Afghan War lasted from 1839 to 1842. It was one of the first major conflicts during the Great Game, the 19th century competition for power and influence in Central Asia between the United Kingdom and Russia, and also marked one of the worst setbacks inflicted on British power in the region after the consolidation of India by the East India Company.



To justify his plan, the Governor-General of India Lord Auckland issued the Simla Manifesto in October 1838, setting forth the necessary reasons for British intervention in Afghanistan. The manifesto stated that in order to ensure the welfare of India, the British must have a trustworthy ally on India's western frontier. The official British position that their troops were merely supporting Shah Shuja's small army in retaking what was once his throne was generally seen (at the time, as well as now) as pretext for incorporating Afghanistan into the British empire. Although the Simla Manifesto stated that British troops would be withdrawn as soon as Shuja was installed in Kabul, Shuja's rule depended entirely on British arms to suppress rebellion and on British funds to buy the support of tribal chiefs. The British denied that they were invading Afghanistan, instead claiming they were merely supporting its legitimate Shuja government "against foreign interference and factious opposition." However, with Persia ruled by a pro-Russian, it may well have been the case that Britain was trying to install a pro-British leader in Afghanistan to prevent Russia from becoming the dominant power and threatening the North-West Frontier.[5]


An army of 21,000 British and Indian troops under the command of Sir John Keane (subsequently replaced by Sir Willoughby Cotten and then by William Elphinstone) set out from Punjab in December 1838. With them was William Hay Macnaghten, the former chief secretary of the Calcutta government, who had been selected as Britain's chief representative to Kabul. By late March 1839, the British forces had reached Quetta, crossed the Bolan Pass and begun their march to Kabul. They advanced through rough terrain, crossed deserts and 4,000-metre-high mountain passes, but made good progress and took Kandahar on April 25, 1839. On July 22, in a surprise attack, they captured the until-then impregnable fortress of Ghazni, which overlooks a plain leading eastward into the North West Frontier Province. An Afghan had betrayed his sovereign and the British troops managed to blow-up one city gate and marched into the city in a euphoric mood. In taking this fortress, they suffered 200 men killed and wounded, while the Afghans lost nearly 500 men. 1,600 Afghans were taken prisoner with an unknown number wounded. The fact that Ghazni was well supplied eased the further advance considerably, if not made it possible at all.

Following this, the British achieved a decisive victory over Dost Mohammad's troops, led by one of his sons. Dost Mohammad fled with his loyal followers across the passes to Bamian, and ultimately to Bukhara. In August 1839, after almost thirty years, Shuja was again enthroned in Kabul.



On November 13, 1839, while en route to India, the Bombay column attacked, as a form of reprisal, the Baluchi tribal fortress of Kalat, from where Baluchi tribes had harassed and attacked British convoys during the move towards the Bolan Pass.


The majority of the British troops returned to India (only 8,000 remained in Afghanistan), but it soon became clear that Shuja's rule could only be maintained with the presence of a greater number of British forces. The Afghans resented the British presence and the rule of Shah Shuja. As the occupation dragged on, William Hay Macnaghten allowed his soldiers to bring their families to Afghanistan in order to improve morale; this further infuriated the Afghans, as it appeared the British were setting up a permanent occupation. Dost Mohammad unsuccessfully attacked the British and their Afghan protégé and subsequentially surrendered to them and was exiled in India in late 1840.

By this time, the British had vacated the fortress of Bala Hissar and relocated to a cantonment built to the North-East of Kabul. The location chosen was defensively unfeasible, being low and swampy with hills on every side. To make matters worse, the cantonment itself was too large in relation to the number of troops encamped in it and had a defensive perimeter almost two miles wide. In addition to this, the stores and supplies were in another, separate fort, placed 300 yards from the main cantonment.[6]

By October 1841, disaffected Afghan tribes were flocking to support Dost Mohammad's son, Mohammad Akbar Khan, in Bamian. In November 1841, a senior British officer, Sir Alexander 'Sekundar' Burnes, and his aides were killed by a mob in Kabul. The British forces took no action in response to the incident, which encouraged further revolt. The British situation soon deteriorated when Afghans stormed the poorly defended supply fort inside Kabul on November 9. In the following weeks, the British commanders tried to negotiate with Akbar Khan. Macnaghten secretly offered to make Akbar Afghanistan's vizier in exchange for allowing the British to stay, while simultaneously disbursing large sums of money to have him assassinated, proceedings that were reported to Akbar Khan. A meeting for direct negotiations between MacNaghten and Akbar was held near the cantonment on 23 December, but MacNaghten and the three officers accompanying him were seized and slain by Akbar Khan. Macnaghten's body was dragged through the streets of Kabul and displayed in the bazaar. Elphinstone had partly lost command of his troops already and his authority was badly damaged.

Destruction of Elphinstone's army

On 1 January 1842, following some unusual thinking by Elphinstone, which may have had something to do with the poor defensibility of the cantonment, an agreement was reached that provided for the safe exodus of the British garrison and its dependants from Afghanistan. Five days later, the withdrawal began. The departing British contingent numbered around 16,000, of which about 3,600 were military personnel, and over 12,000 were civilian camp followers. The military force consisted mostly of Indian units and one British battalion, 44th Regiment of Foot.

Despite the safe-passage the British had been granted, they were attacked by Ghilzai warriors as they struggled through the snowbound passes. The evacuees were harassed down the 30 miles (48 km) of treacherous gorges and passes lying along the Kabul River between Kabul and Gandamak, and were massacred at the Gandamak pass before the survivors reached the besieged garrison at Jalalabad. The force had been reduced to fewer than forty men by a withdrawal from Kabul that had become, towards the end, a running battle through two feet of snow. The ground was frozen, the men had no shelter and had little food for weeks. Of the remaining weapons possessed by the survivors, they included approximately a dozen working muskets, the officers' pistols and a few swords. The only Briton known to have escaped was Dr. William Brydon, though a few others were captured.


Along with the attacks on the garrison at Kabul, Afghan forces also beleaguered the other British contingents in Afghanistan. These were at Kandahar (where the largest British force in the country had been stationed), Jalalabad (held by a force which had been sent from Kabul in October 1841 as the first stage of a planned withdrawal) and Ghazni. Ghazni was stormed, but the other garrisons held out until relief forces arrived from India, in spring 1842. Akbar Khan was heavily defeated near Jalalabad and plans were laid for the recapture of Kabul and the restoration of British hegemony.

However, following a change of government in Britain, Lord Auckland had suffered a stroke and had been replaced as Governor-General by Lord Ellenborough, who was under instructions to bring the war to an end. He ordered the forces at Kandahar and Jalalabad to leave Afghanistan after inflicting reprisals and securing the release of prisoners taken during the retreat from Kabul.

In August 1842, General Nott advanced from Kandahar, pillaging the countryside and seizing Ghazni, whose fortifications he demolished. Meanwhile, General Pollock, advancing through the Khyber Pass from Jalalabad, inflicted a further crushing defeat on Akbar Khan. The combined British forces took Kabul in September. A month later, having rescued the prisoners and demolished the city's main bazaar as an act of retaliation for the destruction of Elphinstone's column, they withdrew from Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass. Dost Muhammad was released, reestablished his authority in Kabul, and died on June 9, 1863.


In the three decades after the First Anglo-Afghan War, the Russians advanced steadily southward towards Afghanistan. In 1842, the Russian border was on the other side of the Aral Sea from Afghanistan; but five years later the Tsar's outposts had moved to the lower reaches of the Amu Darya. By 1865, Tashkent had been formally annexed, as was Samarkand three years later. A peace treaty in 1873 with Amir Alim Khan of the Manghit dynasty, the ruler of Bukhara, virtually stripped him of his independence. Russian control then extended as far as the northern bank of the Amu Darya.

In 1878, the British invaded again, beginning the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

Lady Butler's famous painting of Dr. William Brydon, initially thought to be the sole survivor, gasping his way to the British outpost in Jalalabad, helped make Afghanistan's reputation as a graveyard for foreign armies and became one of the great epics of Empire.

Battle Honour

The battle honour of 'Afghanistan 1839' was awarded to all units of the presidency armies of the East India Company that had proceeded beyond the Bolan Pass, by Gazette of the Governor-General, dated 19 November 1839, the spelling changed from 'Afghanistan' to 'Affghanistan' by Gazette of India No. 1079 of 1916, and the date added in 1914. All the honours awarded for this war are considered to be non-repugnant. The units awarded this battle honour were:

See also

Fictional depictions

The First Anglo-Afghan war was depicted in a work of historical fiction, Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser. This work is Fraser's first 'Flashman' novel. The ordeal of Dr. Brydon may have influenced the story of Dr. John Watson in Sherlock Holmes, although his wound was obtained in the Second war.

Further Reading

  • Fowler, Corinne, (2007) Chasing Tales: travel writing, journalism and the history of British ideas about Afghanistan, Rodopi: Amsterdam and New York
  • Hopkirk, Peter, (1992) The Great Game, Kodansha Globe, ISBN 1-56836-022-3


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  5. ^ David, Saul. Victoria's Wars. 2007 Penguin Books p.17
  6. ^ David, Saul. Victoria's Wars, 2007 Penguin Books. p.41

External links


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