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Occupation and Revolt
Kabul, 1839-1841

The news of the capture of Kabul and reinstatement of Shah Shujah was greeted with jubilation bordering on frenzy back in Simla (summer capital of India) and the rest of the subcontinent. Her Majesty's Government created Lord Auckland a new peerage, Lord Eden of Norwood. No one, at least no one of any power or prestige, seemed to be asking "Well, now that Shujah is back, how are we going to keep him there?".

Kabul derives its sole importance from its strategic position. It sits smack in the middle of the great military roads of Central Asia. If you are in the North, and want to go South (e.g., Genghis Khan and later, Russia,  to India) you have to go through Kabul.  If you are in the West and want to go East, (e.g. Macedonia, Persia to India), you have to go through Kabul. 

Kabul sits high on the Afghan plain, at around 6,000 feet (a bit higher than Denver, CO, for example) and has hot, dry summers and cold, dry winters. At this time of the 19th century, it held around 100,000 souls at any one time (virtually all the males over 12 years of age were armed and dangerous, so to speak). It had a large, well known bazaar with a permanent roof and many hundreds of shops and stalls.  The largest building of note was actually outside the city gates,  the Bala Hissar, or citadel, commanding the heights to the south-east of Kabul and looking down on the city proper. Mud, brick and mortar, it was nevertheless about the only defensible position in the area, and the British Army made it their headquarters. Temporarily...

For the moment, it wasn't all that bad. There was horse-racing and cricket for the Brits, cock-fighting for the Afghans, and much gambling and drinking. When the lakes froze over, the Afghans were introduced to ice skating, a method of movement heretofore completely unknown in this mountainous desert country. Ice skating appears to have not taken hold, as there are few notable Afghan hockey players. Considering their temperament, this is probably a good thing for the NHL.

However, not all sports aroused such amiable reactions as cricket, polo, and horse racing. The Afghan women were very attractive, and at that time, were allowed a great deal of freedom.Many Afghan men preferred the company of their own sex.  It's hard to believe that the Durrani in 1840 were so far ahead of the Taliban in 2001. Women walked about in public unveiled and unescorted, as they pleased. A great number of love affairs sprang up between local women and the handsome British military men. Alexander Burnes was one of the more prominent feringhees linked with several La Femme Afghani. The male populace of Kabul was not pleased.

In September of 1839, the British realized their occupation would of necessity be lengthy, dangerous and expensive. As such, the Bombay force was sent back to India, and soon after General Keane and most of the cavalry left too. General Sir Willoughby Cotton took over as military commander. That winter, Shah Shujah left the cold of Kabul for the slightly less arctic Jalalabad, about 100 miles to the east and somewhat lower in elevation. Macnaghten went with him. The first winter passed rather calmly.

Morale and discipline in the army deteriorated quickly. Macnaghten and his staff of young 'politicals' usurped the military's power in the outlying districts, even thought most of the military staff were senior and more experienced. Gradually, Cotten abdicated his own duties to Macnaghten. This whole abrogation of duty and responsibility would be akin to General Eisenhower allowing a junior state department clerk to plan and oversee the D-Day invasion of France in World War II.

When Shujah came back in the spring of 1840, he decided that the Bala Hissar should be his palace instead of the  Army's fortress, and Macnaghten, not anxious to offend, acquiesced. He relayed the news to Cotton, who, alarmingly, didn't  object. A cantonment was built northeast of the city containing bungalows, shops, offices, and the other outbuildings necessary for an army. The site was chosen for convenience, and not much notice seemed to have been taken that nearly every inch of the surrounding area looked DOWN on the cantonment area. According to most military strategy, holding the LOW ground is not recommend. During the summer, the officers' wives and families came streaming up the hills from India. Everyone there behaved as though they were in Calcutta or Bombay. The cantonment was expanded, but later military analysts were flabbergasted at the total mismanagement of the whole project. For example, the small fort with all the stores for the Army, food, grain, ammunition, muskets et cetera, was located OUTSIDE the walls of the cantonment, about three-quarters of a mile away.

Late in 1840, Dost Mohammed made a few sporadic attempts to raid the outlying farms and villages. A large infantry force led by Brigadier General Robert "Fighting Bob" Sale went out to meet the Afghans, and was cut to pieces by them. A desperate Burnes wrote to Macnaghten that Sale should withdraw what was left of his troops and prepare to defend the city, when suddenly Dost Mohammed rode up to Kabul and surrendered personally to an astonished Macnaghten. Dost Mohammed has regained his honor, defeated a British force, and now was prepared to "take the money and run", being exiled to Ludhiana in the same palace as his erstwhile successor, with a nice fat British pension and most of his royal guard. Given the temerity of Afghan politics, the complete lack of a unified political system, tribal infighting, murderous tribes who owed allegiance to NO king, and other vagaries of Asian monarchs, it was no doubt the safest and sanest thing to do - be protected by the British, live in luxury several hundred miles from the nearest enemy, and still be treated like a king.

Oddly, the city was treated to the sight of the deposed king being visited by most every senior British military officer, who were impressed with his knowledge, bearing and behavior. Striking comparisons were made between him and Shujah, which of course made the latter furious at the honorable welcome given his cousin. In November, Dost Mohammed was sent, under armed escort, into safe exile in India.

For the next year, things steadily deteriorated. Shah Shujah bitterly complained that the Army would not let him govern as he had a right to, and the Army realized that, given his chances, Shujah would be slaughtering every other Afghan he ran across. They came to see that the wrong man was on the throne. Most of his ministers and deputies were incompetent, corrupt and malicious. One British soldier wrote home suggesting that shooting them all was the only intelligent thing to do.

By early in 1841, the expense of keeping the Army in Kabul, and the huge monetary subsidies being paid to local chieftains got to be too much, and cost cutting measures were instituted. Macnaghten was told by Calcutta to cut costs, so the first thing he did was halve the bribes being paid to chieftains to keep their tribes from attacking. The reaction was immediate. Some Ghilzai tribes "guarding"  the Khurd-Kabul pass, to the east, promptly ransacked and destroyed several caravans heading towards Kabul with food and supplies. General Sale and his column, who were returning to India, had to fight their way through, and ended occupying the fort at Jalalabad,  about 70 miles east of Kabul on the road to the Khyber Pass.

Kabul's military situation worsened further that autumn, if that is possible, when General Cotten, himself a rather weak and ineffective commander,  was replaced by perhaps one of the most incompetent  and ill-prepared officers ever given a command. Major General William Keith Elphinstone was over 60 years of age, nearing retirement, afflicted with painful gout and pleurisy, virtually blind, and should have been on a boat back to England decades earlier. The last time he had been in action had been against Napoleon in 1814. Against his own wishes, he was ordered by G/G Auckland to replace Cotton, who, while totally undistinguished and lacking of any character, was a military genius compared to his successor. Dubbed "Elphie Bey" by Emily Eden, he was a family friend of Lord Auckland, who fatuously suggested that "the bracing hills of Cabul" would prove more healthy than "the hot plains of India". Interestingly enough, in one of those odd connections of history, Elphinstone's ill-conceived appointment was suggested firmly back in London by none other than Fitzroy Somerset, the future Lord Raglan, who went on to (in)fame during the Crimean War a decade later by ordering the decimating "Charge of the Light Brigade", thus distinguishing himself by propagating the two most disastrous decisions ever made by British military and civil authorities.

The Afghans continued to grumble. In the beginning of November, PM Palmerston back in London received a letter from Auckland in which the G/G said "we anticipate fresh excitement in Afghanistan." This was the first time Auckland had made the correct assumption.

On the morning of November 2 1841,  Alexander Burnes, his brother, and three other aides, along with their sepoy escort came under attack in downtown Kabul. Burnes had resisted the suggestions of his trusted Mohan Lal to evacuate the city and head for the relative safety of the cantonment.  Convinced of his own infallibility and sure of the Afghan's friendship, Burnes watched his brother and the three aides fall to rifle fire peppering their residence. Fires had been started. No one really knows what happened next. One story has him being betrayed by an Afghan who showed up and offered to sneak them out of the riot via a shadowy escape route. The Afghan got Burnes out of the house and then shouted "Here is Sikunder ("Alexander") Burnes!!!" - another story has him almost escaping down the alleyway, only to be betrayed by his own bravado. After nearly slipping away, he turned to  yell like a schoolboy at the Afghans burning and looting his house, and was recognized. 

In either case, Sir Alexander Burnes, his brother and the other Englishmen were hacked to pieces by the enraged mob. The political agent's severed head ended up on a pole in the bazaar.

Burnes had urgently messaged Macnaghten early in the day, advising of "trouble" but hoping he (Burnes) could handle it. As the day wore on, Macnaghten, indeed the entire cantonment, could see the flames and smoke rising from the city just a few miles away. Elphinstone seemed oblivious. By the early evening, when Burnes and his party had been dead for hours, he remarked "We must see what the morning brings, and then think what can be done."  Needless to say, the next morning, and each successive one, brought new disaster.


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