- George Santayana
"The fate of the British and Indian forces in Afghanistan in the winter of 1840 to 1841 provides a striking illustration of the collapse of morale and military efficiency where the officers in command are indecisive and wholly lacking in initiative and self-confidence. The only senior officer left in Afghanistan with any ability was Brigadier Nott, the garrison commander at Kandahar.
Crisis struck in October 1841. In that month Brigadier Sale took his brigade out of Kabul as part of the force reductions and began the march through the mountain passes to Peshawar and India. Throughout the journey his column was subjected to continuing attack by Ghilzai tribesmen and the armed retainers of the Kabul Ameers. Sale’s brigade, which included the 13th Foot, fought through to Gandamak, where a message was received summoning the force back to Kabul. Sale did not comply with the order and continued to Jellalabad. In Kabul serious trouble had broken out. On 2nd November 1841 an Afghan mob stormed the house of Sir Alexander Burnes, one of the senior British political officers, and murdered him and several of his staff. It is the authoritative assessment that if the British had reacted with vigour and severity the Kabul rising could have been controlled. But such a reaction was beyond Elphinstone’s abilities. All he could do was refuse to give his deputy, Brigadier Shelton, the discretion to take such measures. Until the end of the year the situation of the Kabul force deteriorated as the Afghans harried them and deprived them of supplies and pressed them more closely.
On 23rd December 1841 Macnaghten was lured to a meeting with several Afghan Ameers and murdered. While the Kabulis awaited a swift retribution the British and Indian regiments cowered fearful in their cantonments. Attempts to clear the high ground that enabled the Afghans to dominate the cantonments failed miserably, because the troops were too cowed to be capable of aggressive action. The beginning of the end came on 6th January 1842 when the British and Indian garrison, 4,500 soldiers, including 690 Europeans, and 12,000 wives, children and civilian servants, following a purported agreement with the Ameers guaranteeing safe conduct to India, marched out of the cantonments and began the terrible journey to the Khyber Pass and on to India. As part of the agreement with the Ameers all the guns had to be left to the Afghans except for one horse artillery battery and 3 mountain guns, and a number of British officers and their families were required to surrender as hostages, taking them from the nightmare slaughter of the march into relative security.
In spite of the binding undertaking to protect the retreating army, the column was attacked from the moment it left the Kabul cantonments. The army managed to march 6 miles on the first day. The night was spent without tents or cover, many troops and camp followers dying of cold. The next day the march continued, Brigadier Shelton, after his ineffectiveness as Elphinstone’s deputy, showing his worth leading the counter attacks of the rearguard to cover the main body. At Bootkhak the Kabul Ameer, Akbar Khan, arrived claiming he had been deputed to ensure the army completed its journey without further harassment. He insisted that the column halt and camp, extorting a large sum of money and insisting that further officers be given up as hostages. One of the conditions negotiated with the Ameers was that the British abandon Kandahar and Jellalabad. Akbar Khan required the hostages to ensure Brigadier Sale left Jellalabad and withdrew to India.
The next day found the force so debilitated by the freezing night that few of the soldiers were fit for duty. The column struggled into the narrow five mile long Khoord Cabul pass to be fired on for its whole length by the tribesmen posted on the heights on each side. The rearguard was undertaken by the 44th Regiment who fought to keep the tribesmen at bay. 3,000 casualties were left in the gorge. On 9th January, 1842, Akbar Khan required further hostages in the form of the remaining married officers with their families. For the next two days the column pushed through the passes and fought off the incessant attacks of the tribesmen.
On the evening of 11th January 1842 Akbar Khan compelled General Elphinstone and Brigadier Shelton to surrender as hostages, leaving the command to Brigadier Anquetil. The troops reached the Jugdulluk crest only to find the road blocked by a thorn abattis manned by Ghilzai tribesmen. A desperate attack was mounted, the horse artillery driving their remaining guns at the abattis, but few managed to pass this fatal obstruction.The final stand took place at Gandamak on the morning of 13th January 1842 in the snow. 20 officers and 45 European soldiers, mostly of the 44th Foot, found themselves surrounded on a hillock.
The Afghans attempted to persuade the soldiers that they intended them no harm. Then the sniping began, followed by a series of rushes. Captain Souter wrapped the colours of the regiment around his body and was dragged into captivity with two or three soldiers. The remainder were shot or cut down. Only 6 mounted officers escaped. Of these 5 were murdered along the road. On the afternoon of 13th January, 1842, the British troops in Jellalabad, watching for their comrades of the Kabul garrison, saw a single figure ride up to the town walls. It was Dr. Brydon, the sole survivor of the column.
Follow-up: The massacre of this substantial British and Indian force caused a profound shock throughout the British Empire. Lord Auckland, the Viceroy of India, is said to have suffered a stroke on hearing the news. Brigadier Sale and his troops in Jellalabad for a time contemplated retreating to India, but more resolute councils prevailed, particularly from Captains Broadfoot and Havelock, and the garrison hung on to act as the springboard for the entry of the “Army of Retribution” into Afghanistan the next year."