This Day in History – 1842

Elphinstone’s Army was Massacred

On January 13, 1842, a British army doctor reached the British sentry post at Jalalabad, Afghanistan, the lone survivor of a 16,000-strong Anglo-Indian expeditionary force that was massacred in its retreat from Kabul.

He told of a terrible massacre in the Khyber Pass, in which the Afghans gave the defeated Anglo-Indian force and their camp followers no quarter.

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, And the women come out to cut up what remains, ‘Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier. Go, go, go like a soldier, Go, go, go like a soldier, Go, go, go like a soldier, So-oldier of the Queen!- Kipling (The Young British Soldier)

In the 19th century, Britain, with a goal of protecting its Indian colonial holdings from Russia, tried to establish authority in neighboring Afghanistan by attempting to replace Emir Dost Mohammad with a former emir known to be sympathetic to the British.

This blatant British interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs triggered the outbreak of the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1839.

Dost Mohammad surrendered to British forces in 1840 after the Anglo-Indian army had captured Kabul. However, after an Afghan revolt in Kabul the British had no choice but to withdraw.

The withdrawal began on

Major-General William George Keith Elphinstone CB

January 6, 1842, but bad weather delayed the army’s progress. The column was attacked by swarms of Afghans led by Mohammad’s son, and those who were not killed outright in the attack were later massacred by the Afghan soldiers.

A total of 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 camp followers were killed. Only one man, Dr. William Bryden, escaped to recount the details of the military disaster.

In retaliation, another British force invaded Kabul in 1843, burning a portion of the city.

In the same year, the war came to an end, and in 1857 Emir Dost Mohammad, who had been restored to power in 1843, signed an alliance with the British.

In 1878, the Second Anglo-Afghan War began, which ended two years later with Britain winning control of Afghanistan’s foreign affairs.

While I realize that the British Afghan wars were to protect their interests in India, it’s easy to reflect back and ask whether or not it was worth it.  To maintain empire and the sanctity of British India? That would be the argument anyway.

Was Russia’s Afghan War worth it? The Russians would tell you that it was not.

Is America’s Afghan War worth it? There are a lot of American generals and beltway bandits (who have made hundreds of billions from the war) who tout the war and its value. There are a lot of American casualties and their families who would question the wisdom of the war after the first two or three years. We’ve been there TWENTY years. Did their sacrifice make the place safe for democracy?

37 COMMENTS

  1. Reminds of a John Cleese line from The Meaning of Life. “Today is Empire Day when we try to remember all those who died trying to keep China British.”

      • I have said it before and, although it might annoy any number of people, I will say it again. Afghanistan was, is, and should have remained, a Special Forces and CIA paramilitary war. There was no need for Big Army to get involved. Just like in Viet Nam though, they just could not help themselves.

        Afghans have never had a strong sense of nationalism. Their loyalty does not lie with the country. Family comes first, then extended family, the village, the clan, sub-tribe, and the tribe. The central government, when there was one, was in most instances weak, and had little or no control over the periphery. This was the domain of dominant tribal leaders and local strongmen, those the left-wing trendies, socialists, snowflakes, and the corrupt mainstream media, refer to and denigrate as “warlords”.

        How should we have approached the Afghan problem, after the initial routing of the Taliban? The treatise “One Tribe At A Time” by Special Forces Major Jim Gant set out, quite comprehensively, the way to go about it. It should have been approached from the bottom up not, as has been the case for the past twenty years, by trying to force things on the locals from the top down.

        Gant, however, had a number of problems. His main problem, in my view, was that he was right, Big Army was wrong, and they just could not abide this. Gant had to go, to allow the firepower freaks their desire for a free rein. Unfortunately, Gant had powerful sponsors, in the form of Petraeus and McChrystal, so Big Army had to bide their time. The problem with having powerful sponsors is, and always will be, that, when they ultimately move on, as they do, it opens the sponsored up to the machinations of petty-minded lesser men, those whom, I believe it was Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, referred to as “legends in their own lunchtimes”.

        And so it was with Gant. A stooge was planted on his team. What they had on the stooge, or what they promised him, or what other motive he had, I do not know, but they had their man in. Gant had booze in his camp. So what. Every A Camp I ever went to in Viet Nam had booze in it. There was always a refrigerator in the Team House, and in that refrigerator, among other things, was beer. If you wanted a beer you took one out, and marked it against your name on the clipboard, which always hung along-side the fridge, and drank it. Gant had a woman in his camp. So what. Numerous people in A Camps in Vietnam had a woman in the camp. Many of them will deny it now, to not upset their current wife or the ex-wife or ex-wives, but they did. One who springs to mind, and who has written about it in his memoirs, is Don Bendell, of A-242, at Dak Pek. These were all Montagnard girls though, and Gant’s problem is his girl was, to use the Viet Nam era term a “round eye” and, to boot, a journalist. Gant and his team wore local clothes, they were not in uniform, they acted like locals. So what. To fight this type of war one blends in, one tries, as much as one can, to look like a local. You live with them, you eat with them, you respect their culture, no matter how different to your own.

        Still, enough of my ranting. Whilst one might think I dislike all of Big Army, this is not so. I have a great deal of time and respect for those at the section, platoon, and company level. The ones who always get shafted. It is the vast majority of those in the ranks above Major that I cannot abide. And, unfortunately, some Majors get infected by the disease as well.

        • Mike W, my dear friend, you’re missing the point. The point is not to win the war, the point is to spend a lot of money that hits the board room. How can people in DC and New York City become fabulously wealthy on the backs of two dozen A-Teams, who, for the most part, are living off the land and buying local? They’re not even wearing uniforms, shipped from Newport News or San Diego, 9,000 miles.

          And OH THE HORROR – alcohol in camp? Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine! Can you imagine the pollution that will take place should a 32 year old SF master sergeant (or chief petty officer since the Navy was there too) drink a beer?

          What if the men in camp…gulp…had carnal knowledge of the women? The French had a BMC (mobile military brothel), but Americans (ok, and Australians in MikeW’s case) are pure – see alcohol above – and that sort of thing is just not done.

          The four-stars didn’t like President Trump because he served the people, not their masters in the board room. He’s the first president in a hundred and fifty years who didn’t start a war or work to prolong one. How could Wall Street deal with that tectonic change? Oh, yeah, promote the installment of a compliant human corpse and a whore.

          You can only spend a lot of money when Big Army shows up to turn Kabul into Sydney/San Francisco along with gas stations and strip malls.

          And the broken souls (on both sides of the war) who are the inevitable casualties of these endless wars are only a footnote. Pin on a purple heart and move on.

    • Yes. Surprisingly the Russians are candid about most things. Often people are offended, but candid works.

    • The war is coming. Jo and Ho need to be sworn in first. My guess is that we’ll be going somewhere by the end of February to spend money and kill people.

      • Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un certainly view this as a time of weakness for America. Wonder what they might come up with?

        • I don’t think that the Norks will do much. We will go back to saber rattling as Jo and Ho work to destroy the rapprochement that President Trump built.

          The Chinese will take a wait-snd-see posture. I don’t see them moving on Taiwan immediately.

    • I think we may be headed back. The board rooms who now run America have a thirst for more money and expending ordnance is a sure fire way to puff up the bottom line. The generals never favored a withdrawal…from anywhere.

      How do you make higher rank if not by distinguished action in a war? Oh, I know how it works with officers, and particularly West Pointers or ring knockers of any type, but you don’t get a silver star by sitting on a chair at the Pentagon. You have to show up. For some, being a rear echelon MF is sufficient for some type of award. John (Swiftboat) Kerry is a model for that. Two weeks in a forward area and you get two navy crosses and three purple hearts. Skull and Bones (Yale) connections are all that matter.

  2. Wars in the Kingdoms of Savages should really either be limited to punitive raids, or they should go big with an objective of semi-permanent (50-100 years) Occupation to Civilize. In the latter case, you really have to be serious and energetic about it.

    Dithering really doesn’t work, even if you dither for 20 years.

    Expecting the Savages to civilize themselves, following your Upright Example, is just moronic.

    -Kle.

      • Sort of.

        Seems like there must be an easier, more efficient method for generating graft from tax dollars, w/o getting good people blown up for nothing. The National Expenditure per dollar of graft ratio is terrible in wars, especially Wars on the Moon like in Afghanistan.

        -Kle.

        • There may be (like green energy companies that kick back – during the Obamanation), but the Military Industrial Complex has been around for a long time and they grease politicians heavily.

  3. james michener said in 1949 that many will try but none will conquer afghanistan, and explained why in his book Caravans. some people you just leave alone. they’ll fight amongst themselves, but best everybody else look away. i tried to warn higher-ups when it started looking like nation building to no avail. had they only read a book, lives and fortunes would have been saved.

    • Were any Afghans flying on those airplanes that hit the World Trade Center or the Pentagon?

      We couldn’t very well strike our ally Saudi Arabia (or Pakistan).

      And nobody in the US knows anyone from Afghanistan (you get my point) or gives two squirts for the place.

      As MikeW (above) wrote, the CIA/SF action against the Taliban worked. The Big Army solution did not, could not, never will in that place. But the CIA/SF solution didn’t cost much. Most of the expense came from B-52’s (on-call overhead artillery) that dropped smart bombs on lazed targets – very effectively.

  4. It is not worth it. It will go on forever, Afghanistan will always generate trouble due to the differences among all the different groups of people being forced into one country they do not relate to. The population will only increase and generate more costs. Just look at the current demographic and forecasts. The culture, religion, topography, and all that matters will not change.

    Since Alexandre the Great on text summarize it “Alexander’s campaign in Afghanistan has become a mere footnote in his legacy—perhaps because it was the region where the great warlord saw the least success. Like many other military superpowers would after him, from the British Empire to Russia to NATO, Alexander waltzed into Afghanistan with all the confidence in the world, but he left battered and bruised, with very little to show for it. The region chewed him up and spit him out, and while he never explicitly “lost” any battles in his time there, it’s hard to so he won much of anything either. In fact, historians have claimed that the brutal Afghan campaign marked a shift in Alexander—from infallible Golden Boy to a cruel, paranoid shell of what he once was.”

    Leave Afghanistan alone and let the people solve their own problems. If they cause problems for others, solve the problems cost-efficiently, but do not use soldiers and let them die for failed politics. Afghans are rational people, they understand the language of the big stick. Nuke them to dust and glass if they cannot behave but they will. Like most people, they want to solve their problems in their own way. As long as they keep themselves within their own borders all will be fine. Due to culture and religion, they will forever stay in the medieval.

    US politicians should rather build the wall and keep troublemakers outside of the borders. Spend time and money on your own infrastructure and make your education system world-class.

    • I’m just a B.S. artist from South Texas and, if-n I was to be honest about it, don’t really anything about it, but it seems to me that what “we” call “problems” in Afghanistan, the Afghan’s themselves call normal.

      If “civilization” can be defined as a cluster of traditions and norms developed over time to differentiate one group of people from another, the Afghans have worked hard at building their civilization over a couple or three thousands of years. They may not have what we would think of as a very good civilization, but they seem to like it well enough. Who are we to say that they’re wrong, especially since ours is working so well at the moment?

      • WWW, inside every Afghan is an American, screaming to get out. Or so it’s said. “If we could only turn Afghanistan into Connecticut…”

        It’s sort of the way those of us who live on the Mogollon Rim in Arizona feel. Let Washington DC people bugger themselves, change their gender, call themselves whatever race is fashionable, but leave us the fux alone.

        • Yes. Charity begins at home. Therefore let them first destroy their own village in order to save ours.

  5. @Kle:
    “getting good people blown up for nothing”
    It’s NOT for nothing. Every American injury and death is a benefit to certain people. Multiple benefits, in fact. The business/profit side of war has already been noted. But consider this: Each American son or daughter maimed or killed pushes their family and friends into taking sides in old, old conflicts that we should stay out of as much as possible. Us hating Muslims and them hating us back is a very very good thing for those that the Muslims hate even more than us. So that is one clear benefit. Yet simultaneously, persons of the US war-fighting tribes being trained to hate Muslims gives them a rod to beat us with. How else can they accuse us of “Islamophobia” and “racism” and all the other charges dear to their hearts? It’s manipulation and “heads I win, tails you lose” all around.

    @LL:
    “inside every Afghan is an American, screaming to get out”
    I understand that was darkest irony, but I found this an interesting anecdote. Through random chance, I supervise (in part) two Pashtun physicians, both female and observant (though neither wears a head scarf, and one curses like a sailor — or a cardiologist), and both have become good friends of mine. Anyway, one of them tells me of a cousin who traveled the US by car, visiting scores of communities from big cities to remote villages. This cousin reported that the place where he felt most at home was in rural Appalachia. Not because of the relative poverty, but because it was the closest he experienced to Pashtunwali in the US. He liked the honor culture, the strong faith, the comfort with weapons, the hospitality to strangers (i.e. him — he understood he was not accepted necessarily, but he was treated with respect and kindness as a guest) and the importance of tribe, family, and land. Where he felt least at home was when being feted by wealthy progressive academics. (He comes from a rich and educated family, BTW; it wasn’t the disdain of the roughneck for the educated.) He felt that he was treated as a man in Appalachia, and as some sort of rare and valuable animal among Our Betters. (“Katherine has a snow leopard in her back yard today! We have a viewing party at 4 pm, you should totally stop by.”)

    • Okay then: “for no good reason”, instead of “for nothing”.

      I’m not sure the bad guys are such deep thinkers as all that, though, but I admit it’s possible. As for needing reasons to accuse us of racism etc… I don’t think they need any justifications? I mean, I’m a racist nowadays because I think the entire concept of race has never been anything but a malicious lie, and that everyone should be treated equally under the law. What’s the need for setup anymore, when any Leftist can spew insanity like that and be taken seriously?

      -Kle.

  6. The Afghans gave us a good lesson in fighting a technologically more advanced foe. even though the brits were only slightly more advanced in 1842. It went on for days- they chopped and sniped and stabbed and nibbled and carved the Brits, piece by piece, straggler by straggler, bit by bit they reduced them to a remnant and stopped them at the pass.

    They showed them again years later at Maiwand, but that was a lot more of a set piece battle, and weaponry was pretty much equal IIRC.

    • Engaging the British Army of that era in a set piece battle wherein the British are fighting from prepared defensive positions and are supplied with food, water and ammo is a loser.

      In the Zulu War, when the impis caught them in the open (as opposed to Rorque’s Drift), the British didn’t do well. Later in the campaign, the British set themselves up on an island in the Buffalo River and anchored their flanks with Gatling guns, and had artillery firing canister. And the Zulus engaged them where the water slowed their advance and the British had clear fields of fire. A lot of Zulus were washed down stream that day.

      Not unlike the Romans. Julius Caesar won by using his unarticulated infantry in a defensive role, backed by combined arms and the Gauls came at them in the way that Rome was strongest.

  7. Some think that politicians are ignorant of history and could avoid some conflicts by just reading a book (Street Without Joy comes to mind).
    I think that not only do they know history and human nature, but they count on it to get the results that maximize profit and power.
    Sometimes they miscalculate and pay the price, but it is rare in our society.

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