Home Up Sources

Revenge and Retribution

The bad news from Afghanistan made its way slowly across India, reaching Auckland in Calcutta by late November. He staggered under the blow, having been led by Macnaghten's letters all along to expect that Afghanistan was peaceful and serene. Now, within the space of a few days, he read of Burnes' murder, the uprising and burning of Kabul, and the quick decline of morale among the survivors. Contemporary accounts picture him pacing back and forth all day, muttering to himself and looking off into the distance.

He resisted the urge to immediately send reinforcements, presciently gauging the troubles that would be encountered, and deciding against risking further British lives and Crown financial resources.  Basically, his replies back to Macnaghten in the next few weeks were "You're on your own."   For most of November and December, he waited, getting worse and worse news every day.  Finally, late in December, he, with the grudging acceptance of his military leaders, decided to send a relief force.  On 2 January, just a few days before Elphinstone and Shelton crawled out of Kabul, and a week after his Political Envoy had been hacked to death, a force of two brigades was assembled and sent towards Peshawar.

Auckland, as usual, made a horrible choice for the commander of this force - an Adjutant Major-General Lumley, yet another of the elderly semi-invalids that Governor-General seemed so fond of.  Lumley, no fool,  had been seriously ill, and with some forethought agreed to head the force if his doctors approved it.  The medical men saw little hope of Lumley even surviving the winter, much less leading a fighting force, and so even Auckland was forced to find another man.

Major General George Pollock, in charge of the garrison at Agra, was given the command.  Competent, calm, and having at least  common sense, he was for the most part appreciated and approved of by the other players in the drama. He had three questions to answer with his force  - what was to be done about the prisoners still held by Akbar Khan, son of the deposed Dost Mohammed; what about the British garrisons still holding out in Kandahar, Jalalabad and Ghazni? And what about Shah Shujah?

Shujah was still on the throne in Kabul, oddly enough. (Or perhaps not, considering Afghan politics). As the British left, the chiefs once again took up their national pastime of killing each other and bickering over who was to lead, leaving a somewhat bewildered Shah Shujah to lock himself in the Bala Hissar and bemoan the fact that he'd ever left the safe, easy sanctuary of Ludhiana. Finally, in March 1842 the chiefs  demanded he prove his loyalty to them and not the British by leading a column of fighters out of Kabul to attack General Sale in Jalalabad. The old monarch was understandably reluctant to leave the safety of his fortress and march out in front of all those muskets, but his Prime Minister,  Zemaun Shah, assured him that his Barukzye would be true to him.  Zemaun acted in good faith, but his evil son Shujah-ool-Dowlah, the king's godson, had other ideas. He rode ahead of the royal party as it trotted out of the gates of the city and ambushed the king. Shujah fell dead, a bullet through his brain.  Ool-Dowlah's father reacted with horror at his son's treachery, and vowed never to never to let him set foot in his house again, nor mention his name.

The prisoners, meanwhile, had been moved back towards Kabul by Akbar Khan. Among them were Lady Sale, General Shelton, the frail and near-death Elphinstone, the wounded Eldred Pottinger, George Lawrence, and about ten other wives and widows, and thirteen children. As they trudged back along the track towards Kabul, they walked past the thousands of frozen, bloody and mangled corpses of their friends, fellow officers and comrades. "The sight was dreadful, " wrote Lady Sale in her diary, "the smell of the blood sickening; and the corpses lay so thick it was impossible to look away from them, and it took some care to guide my horse so as not to tred upon their bodies."

On the 19th of February, an earthquake struck near where they had been quartered. Buildings collapsed with a rush and a roar, the mud and sticks not quite up to surviving a Central Asian quake. Shelton and another officer were caught unawares, smoking cigars on the roof of one building that literally fell down underneath them. After the two British officers scrambled to safety out of the rubble, the General, ever the Army man, reprimanded his fellow prisoner for heading out of the wreckage first. 

Pollock and his troops were still camped in Peshawar, on the eastern end of the Khyber Pass, not quite ready to advance into Afghanistan yet to relieve Sale in Jalalabad and continue towards Kabul.  Finally, early in April, he ordered his troops into the deadly Khyber Pass. Taking a page from the Afghan book, his infantry climbed the heights of the pass above the murderous tribesmen waiting for them, and poured a murderous fire down on the disconcerted Ghilzais. They melted away like the summer snows, and a few days later, Pollock was welcomed joyously in Jalalabad. His was the first force in recorded history to have breached the Khyber Pass in a show of force. Alexander the Great failed.  Tamerlane had failed. The Mongols, under Genghis' Khan's son, wisely never even tried.  Akbar the Great had lost 40,000 men in 1587, and Aurangzeb, in the seventeenth century, had also failed.

A few days later, the British went out from the fort and thoroughly trounced Akbar Khan and burned his tent after routing him and 6000 of his men. The new Governor-General, Lord Ellenborough was highly pleased. He had succeeded the hapless Auckland in mid February. Ellenborough, thought not a soldier, had an appreciation for the soldierly discipline and way of life. Heaping praise upon Pollock, Sale and his own Commander-in-Chief, General Nicholls, he made noises about "teaching the Afghani a lesson about British life".  Puzzling, then, was his order to Nicholls to order Pollock and General Nott, proceeding up through Afghanistan from the south at Kandahar, to "leave Afghanistan as soon as possible."

Pollock adopted delaying tactics. Nott and his forces pretended not to hear. Finally, exasperated, Ellenborough wrote Nott that if he wanted to leave the country "via Kabul", that was OK with him. Then he told Pollock, "as long as General Nott is headed for Kabul, you may as well go there to meet him", roundabout ways of saying "withdraw from the country, but stop by the capital, a few hundred miles out of your way, and burn it to the ground."  Which is pretty much what they did. 

Nott headed north from Kandahar. Pollock and Sale headed west from Jalalabad, following the same track that six months earlier had witnessed the deaths of so many thousands of innocent people. At every point, they came upon evidence of the ghastly death that had claimed so many -  at the settlement of Tezeen, they found a rotting pile of 1500 corpses of the sepoys and camp followers.  The advancing army listened to the sound of their gun carriages and horse's hooves crunching over the bones of their comrades, women, and small children. Twice, the Afghans engaged them in battle, but the British were by now ready for anything.

Elphinstone, meanwhile, had finally succumbed to old age, gout and pleurisy in mid May. Akbar buried the little man in the fort at Jalalabad. Sick, tired, alone, feeble, and knowing he was to blame for a measure of the disaster, Elphinstone however also knew that he'd tried to convince Auckland that he was not the right pick for the job.  He was never hated by the men as much as Shelton was, he was just too old, too feeble, and too powerless to act in a military manner. Poor, old, "Elphy Bey", as Emily Eden called him, more to be pitied than censured.

On September 15th, the Union Jack once again flew over the Kabul racecourse. Two days later, General Nott arrived. All that remained was to secure the release of the prisoners, exact some retribution, and leave the god-forsaken country behind them.

Akbar's prisoners had been kept in the mountain town of Budeeaba. He claimed to be sorely repenting his part in the previous months of activity, and twice sent George Mackenzie to meet with Pollock in Jalalabad with proposals for the terms under which the prisoners might be returned. Pollock, however, was not empowered to meet any demands from Akbar, and Mackenzie returned to his captors, twice.  Fearing a military action, Akbar moved his band of prisoners towards Tezeen in April. Like Pollock later in the year, the prisoners moved over the same mountain trails that their families, friends, and compatriots had died on just a few scant months earlier. Later published journals from several of the officers and, of course, Lady Sale's diary, spoke of the horror of seeing the decomposing bodies slowly rotting in the sun. 

After Tezeen, the prisoners were finally moved west of Kabul to Bameean, where the rumors of being sold into slavery in Turkestan ran riot. After a while, the British found their jailer, an ex-soldier in Shah Shujah's army who had gone over to Akbar, willing to turn his coat a second time, and they more or less took over the fort they were supposed to be prisoners in. They raised a homegrown Union Jack,  deposed the local town governor, and appointed a more friendly chief in his stead. With spirited effrontery, Eldred Pottinger started issuing proclamations urging the local chiefs to come in and state their subservience to the British. What was even more astounding, they came in - bowing allegiance to a band of rag-tag British officers, ostensibly the prisoners of war, but still commanding respect. 

They didn't have to bluff long - Pollock sent a force out of Kabul just two days after he arrived, to rescue the prisoners. Leading it was his own political secretary, Sir Richmond Shakespeare, who had earlier in the decade distinguished himself by freeing several hundred Russian slaves being held by the Khan of Khiva.  They reached Bameean without incident, and the joyous reunion between them was tempered only by the expectedly boorish and gruff Brigadier Shelton angrily complaining that Shakespeare had not reported his arrival first to him, but to the grateful wives and countrymen of the young officer. 

By late September, Shakespeare had brought the entire group of captives - twenty officers (half of them still badly wounded), ten ladies,  two soldier's wives, 22 children, six Bengal Horse artillerymen, 28 wounded men of the 44th Foot, and seven of the 13th Light Infantry.  General Sale was reunited with his wife, Lady Sale. Shelton sulked in his tent most of the time. Nott and Pollock wanted nothing to do with him.

All that was left now was to exact some revenge. The British blew up the magnificent Great Kabul bazaar, dynamiting it and the homes around it, and burning what would catch fire. The city burned for days. The force turned around and headed for India.


In the military tribunals and courts martial which convened in the coming months, blame was mostly laid at the feet of Macnaghten and Elphinstone.  Brigadier Shelton was acquitted of all charges except for "clandestinely arranging for fodder for his horses with Akbar". He returned to England, and took command of the 44th as it was being rebuilt. In 1844, he was thrown from his horse during a parade and died of his injuries three days later.  It is a mark of his  belligerence that his own men turned out on the parade ground and gave three hearty cheers upon hearing of his death.

Eldredge Pottinger, the "Hero of Herat",  leader of the prisoners, one of the few "Politicals" who seems to have comported himself with honor and dignity during the whole affair, was invited to return home via southern China by his equally famous uncle, Sir Henry Pottinger, Governor of Hong Kong.  While there, Eldred caught typhus and died, at the age of 32. 

Auckland reentered British politics on his return to England, and became First Lord of the Admiralty. He died on January 1, 1849. He has a city in New Zealand named after him, as does, of course, his old boss Melbourne, in Australia.  (Thank you LT for correcting me!!!)

Ellenborough, who came to India proclaiming his desire to bring peace, got involved in war after war, and the East India Company board of Governors recalled him in June of 1844.

Dost Mohammed reclaimed the throne in Kabul, and remained steadfastly loyal to the British neighbors. He refused to come to the aid of fellow Moslems during the Revolt in 1857, and died in 1863 of natural causes, an amazing event considering the Afghan history. His son, Akbar, was poisoned by his Indian doctor in 1847.

Eerily, almost the same events happened 40 years later. The British resident in Kabul, Sir Louis Cavagnari, was murdered by a Kabul mob after the British had once again invaded the country, replaced the existing ruler with someone slightly less pro-Russian, and stayed around afterwards. But this time, the occupying force was led by Sir Frederick "Bob" Roberts, who quickly applied military might. But the story of the Second Afghan war is for later....