Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Misery in the Retreat from Kabul: First Afghan War, 1842

The First Anglo-Afghan war proves that regime change can be a bloody affair needing public support to succeed.  The struggle with Russia for power in central Asia, known to history as the Great Game, led to the desire for British control over Afghanistan, as a buffer for their power base in India. In 1839, Britain wished to replace Emir Dost Mohammad with a more friendly ruler.  In doing so they precipitated revolt.  Kabul was taken easily enough in 1840, but with the situation deteriorating, on 6 January 1842 the 4500 soldiers and 12000 camp followers began their retreat to Jalalabad under the command of Major General William Elphinstone.  The effects of Afghan raiders on this column were devastating:

Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, 1842. William Barnes Wollen
"The road was strewn with the mangled corpses of their comrades and the stench of death was in the air - All along the route they had been passing little groups of camp-followers, starving, frostbitten, and many of them in a state of gibbering idiocy.  The Afghans, not troubling to kill these stragglers, had simply stripped them and left the cold to do its work and now the poor wretches were huddling together naked in the snow, striving hopelessly to keep warm by the heat of their own bodies.  There were women and little children among them, who piteously stretched out their hands for succour ... Later the Afghans were to report with relish that the unhappy fugitives, in their blind instinct to preserve life a little longer, had been reduced to eating the corpses of their fellows.  But they all died in the end." Patrick Macory, Signal Catastrophe, p.244.

Only a single man survived the march from Kabul, while several senior officers, including Elphinstone, had been taken prisoner.  The words of a Captain Backhouse, a party in the relief force marching back to Kabul against the lines of retreat, portray a grisly scene: "the sight of the remains of the unfortunate Caubul force was fearfully heartrending.  They lay in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades at almost every yard." (Dixon, Psychology of Military Incompetence, 78-79).
Remnants of an Army.  Elizabeth Butler

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