British Benghazi in Afghanistan 1842


Central Asia is a very large stage from which originated the legendary Mongolian armies, the Turks that seized the ancient Byzantine empire and many fabled cities that had rarely been visited by Westerners even in the 1800s. In Washington DC and other modern world capitals, officials wring their hands and discuss Afghanistan’s reputation for breaking formidable occupation forces like the British and Russians. President Obama campaigned with promises to finish the job in Afghanistan. A good promise that may be EXHIBIT “A” in the case we can call “CHARACTER COUNTS VS. INDECISION AND VACILLATION.

In 1840, Sir William Macnaghten, preparing to leave his duties in Afghanistan and begin a new job in Bombay, stated that Afghanistan was quiet from “Dan to Beersheeba”. In Kabul, British officers and their wives and children played cricket, held concerts and enjoyed steeplechases and skating far from the heat of India from where most of them had come. Macnaghten was an experienced political officer but he and the other political were unaware that the combination of coercion and subsidies the British lavished on many tribes could not offset womanizing, drinking and other British pastimes that greatly offended the Islamic mullahs and not a few Afghani husbands. Warnings went out that “their mullahs are preaching against us from one end of the country to the other” but Macnaghten chalked the warnings up to alarmism with potential to needlessly hinder his career.

The presence of so many British subjects drove up the price of food. Additionally, taxes were increased due to Shah Shujah’s lifestyle which depended on the British continuing to occupy Kabul despite British assurances to the contrary. Seduction of local women had roused the cuckolded men of Kabul to murderous thirst for revenge that was not long in coming.

Sir Alexander Burnes, the British officer who first scouted out Afghanistan for the British, was living with other officers in a house surrounded by a wall and courtyard. His assistant warned Sir Alexander that threats against his life were being made. Even as Burnes was ignoring the warnings, a crowd was gathering in hopes of seizing the garrison treasury. The mob grew larger and proceeded to the officers’ residence in the old city. When Macnaghten was informed, he argued with suggestions to take immediate action and continued to act indecisively as things took many rapid turns for the worse.

Burnes and other officer, standing on a balcony overlooking the demonstrators, tried to reason with the now uncontrollable mob which unable to hear anything Burnes said. Nevertheless, Burnes ordered his sepoys to hold their fire even as the stables were set on fire. Then a shot from the crowd killed Major Broadfoot standing beside Burnes on the balcony. Burnes tried to buy off the crowd but the gold in the compound was already free for the taking. According to one account, Burnes was convinced to sneak out of the compound in native garb and then betrayed to the mob. Due to indecision and the confusion amid such uproar, Macnaghten never issued orders to save Burnes and the other officers from the massacre even though over 4,500 British and Indian troops were nearby.

Burnes fate was only a prelude to more indecisive negotiations, mistakes and outright criminal negligence on the part of Macnaghten, the epitome of the wrong politician at the wrong place at the wrong time. The mob careened through the city slaughtering suspected collaborators. As the rampaging mob proceeded to burn homes and loot shops, Macnaghten and General William Elphinstone, a sick and ageing man that should not have been in command, continued to vacillate as thousands of Afghans streamed to join the throng in the city.

The British hunkered down for a siege in a poorly protected low-lying plain. Macnaghten had no military experience that might have caused him to move the garrison away from the threat of artillery and sniper fire. Like a true politician he began dispensing more money in a failed effort to buy some friendship. There were even payments made to assassinate the leaders of the insurrection but with little effect on the rebel resolve. Outlying British posts were overrun, an entire Gurkha regiment was massacred and efforts to eliminate two Afghan guns that were placed on a hill overlooking the trapped garrison led to a new catastrophe.

After taking the hill, the British troops, attacked by Afghan horsemen and infantry, formed into two squares with massed cavalry waiting for the onslaught to begin. The Afghans had long-barreled jezails that reached out to British troops with impunity. The British nine pounder was too overheated to retaliate and the British muskets dropped rounds harmlessly in front of the deadly Afghan matchlocks.

Even while many British troops within the squares were being killed by well-aimed rifle fire, the enemy had crawled along a gully (in full view of those watching the battle from the cantonments below) and the enemies blood curdling charge was only stopped after the rallying fleeing British to reform and launch a bayonet charge. The cavalry and the 9-pounder (back in action) also helped to drive off the Afghans. Casualties were heavy on both sides but it seemed as though “the curse of God was upon those unhappy people”. The Afghan attackers fled back to the cantonments but quickly returned with shouting to mutilate the 300 British corpses that remained on the hillside.

At this point Mohammed Akbar Khan joined the rebels with 6,000 fighting men! His father, Dost Mohammed, deposed by the British, was in India in British hands, so the Afghans, now outnumbering the British garrison by seven to one, surprised the British by offering a truce. Macnaghten had little choice but to follow the standard political playbook: negotiate and cover your ass!

The Afghan negotiators wanted Shah Shujah and demanded that the British surrender their arms and return to India. After further discussions it was agreed that Britain would withdraw its troops under guarantee of safe passage and the Shah would return with the British to India. Meanwhile Macnaghten began attempts to reverse the situation by manipulation. Even as his negotiating position continued to weaken and with the onset of winter, Macnaghten sent a go-between with promises of gold to divide the enemy.

This worked well enough that Akbar now made a new offer. Wait and leave Afghanistan in the spring and pay Akbar a small fortune for handing over Burnes’ assassin. Macnaghten, convinced that he had now finessed the situation beautifully, went out the next day and sat down with Akabar to parley. When asked whether he accepted the offer proposed the night before, Macnaghten replied, “Why not?”

Within hearing range and unbeknown to Macnaghten, men from the same tribes that Macnaghten had worked so assiduously to buy off were within hearing range and could now see for themselves how the British were trying to play off the various tribes against each other. Such duplicity sealed the Macnaghten’s fate and the fate of the whole garrison.

Akbar came off best in the great game of treachery that had now been unfolding in central Asia for centuries. Macnaghten was drug away in horror and astonishment and there is no reliable account of the exact manner of his death which may have come from Akbar’s own hand. Such was Akbar’s rage at his father having been overthrown by the British that Macnaghten’s beheaded corpse along with the severed arms and legs limbs were exhibited in the bazaar that night. Once again, indecision had prevented rescue even though General Elphinstone was standing by with look-outs in the nearby cantonments and observed the whole affair.

At this late stage, the Afghans fully expected to bear the full brunt of British retaliation. Elphinstone, gout-ridden, descended into a paralysis that spread to the whole garrison. Decisive leadership, which still could have prevented the annihilation of over 16,000 men, women and children did not exist within the camp. With limited supplies and without any will to act, negotiations were renewed!

At this point, Eldred Pottinger could only negotiate from weakness and advised attacking immediately. Five years previously Pottinger successfully organized the defense of Herat but Elphinstone ignored the suggestion that Akbar could not be trusted and overruled his advice to attack the enemy. When Akbar demanded that the British surrender their field pieces and provide married officers along with wives and children as hostages, Elphinstone asked for volunteers. On January 1, 1842, the British garrison entered an agreement for safe passage under armed escort through the passes to Jalalabad, the nearest British garrison, eighty miles away. The demand for married officers with families had dropped and the British knew that any hesitation would mean mountain passes blocked with snow. There were warnings that, unless the Afghans provide hostages, the British had signed their own death warrants. Any remaining positions of strength had now been denied the British, however, as they headed to their fate.

There was an advance guard that included cavalry followed by British wives and children, the sick and pregnant borne by Indian on palanquins. Following these were the infantry, main cavalry and artillery and then a rearguard that protected the camels and bullocks sandwiched in between the main body and the rear. Thousands of camp followers were trying to keep up wherever they could, most without any provisions. The escort promised by Akbar did not show up and promised supplies were not provided. Nevertheless, despite repeated advice to stay in a defensible position within the city, the British started towards the passes. Only one man, a medical doctor, made it through alive to the fort in Jalalabad a week later.

From the time that the British turned their backs on their cantonment, the Afghans harassed them with sniper fire that never really ceased. Afghan horsemen drove off the livestock and hacked at the straggling camp followers. The British covered a bloody five miles the first day after leaving Kabul and the first night many of Indian troops and camp followers died from the cold or were crippled by frostbite and left behind to die in the snow. Akbar now appeared and demanded more hostages, ordering Elphinstone to wait while Akbar went ahead to talk to the tribes through whose territory the British would be escorted.

Once the British entered the four mile long Khoord-Cabool Pass on January 8th, the fact became apparent that Akbar had made the British halt to give the tribesmen with their jezails time to reach the crags commanding the pass. The dead numbered three thousand that day, many butchered as they crossed and recrossed a frozen stream. Amid the incessant sniper fire, Akbar rode urging the Afghans to spare the British. While he said “spare them” in Persian (a language known to many British officers), he exhorted the enemy to “slay them” in Pashtoo. Akbar proposed to take the wives and children of the British officers. Nineteen of them were escorted away and never seen again!

The snow-blind soldiers were cut up by the incessant sniper fire and butchered by hand in the snow. By the 10th only 750 troops survived and, of the 12,000 civilians that had left Kabul five days before, two-thirds were dead. Akbar looked on as all this transpired and Elphinstone accepted his claims that the men were beyond his control.

On January 12th, there were less than 200 troops and 2,000 camp-followers. When the general went to Akbar’s camp with his second-in-command and another officer, Akbar took them hostage, too. The British, having received a message smuggled out by Elphinstone, continued on at night. Thus, they surprised the Afghans by trying to remove an unmanned barrier erected to stop them beneath the deadly Afghan sniper emplacements positions planned for the following day in the narrow gorge.

It was in the chaos after the Afghan’s discovered British troops demolishing the barrier that Dr. William Brydon was surrounded, pulled from his horse and cut with a knife. Brydon parried another blow from a long Afghan knife by slicing off his opponent’s fingers in the darkness. Dehorsed and missing a piece of his skull, Dr. Brydon came across a chest-shot cavalryman that begged him to take his pony. Dr. Brydon joined a group of officers and men who made it past the barrier.

The only other group that broke through (twenty officers and forty-five enlisted men) had formed into a square near the village of Gandmark and fought to the last man. These men refused to bargain with Afghans that promised safety if the men handed over their weapons. Hand to hand fighting started when the British men resisted disarmament. Fighting with bayonet and sword, at least one officer killed five Afghans before they claimed his life.

Dr. Brydon’s group accepted the hospitality of a peaceful village twelve miles to the east. Suddenly, at a signal, armed horsemen were attacking the village of Futtehabad, grabbing the British weapons while the villagers joined in, firing on Brydon’s comrades that tried to ride off. Five, including the good doctor got clear, but only Brydon managed to elude pursuit. The doctor put his sword to good use and cut through one group of about twenty. A little further on he was confronted by a second group that included an Afghan with a jezail. The close range shot snapped the doctor’s sword and wounded the pony that carried the lone British survivor out of range.

Then a group of horsemen approached Dr. Brydon. At first he mistook them for a British rescue party. Then Dr. Brydon threw the broken sword at one of the opponents, taking a sword swipe with his left hand. He reached for his bridle with his strong hand and the opponent rode off. “I suppose my foe thought I was reaching for a pistol,” he stated later.

Alas, his pistol, fallen from its holster, was behind him somewhere in the snow. Brydon was wounded and his pony, severely bleeding, was unlikely to take him to Jalalabad. Hunger was overtaking him and fatigue began to set in. He started thinking about how vulnerable he would be to another roving band of Afghans when, on January 13, 1842 the British look-outs in Jalalabad saw him. The other survivors of the original 16,000 that left Kabul were the hostages held by Akbar and some sepoys and other Indians that hid in caves. No stragglers ever came to the Jalalabad’s Kabul Gate.

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