Britain's Disastrous Retreat from Kabul

In 1842 Afghanistan Massacre, Only One British Soldier Survived

Illustration of the assassination of Sir Alexander Burnes
Assassination of Sir Alexander Burnes by Afghans. Getty Images

A British incursion into Afghanistan ended in disaster in 1842 when an entire British army, while retreating back to India, was massacred. Only a single survivor made it back to British-held territory. It was assumed the Afghans let him live to tell the story of what had happened.

The background to the shocking military disaster had been the constant geopolitical jockeying in southern Asia which eventually came to be called “The Great Game.” The British Empire, in the early 19th century, ruled  India (through the East India Company), and the Russian Empire, to the north, was suspected of having its own designs on India.

The British wanted to conquer Afghanistan to prevent the Russians from invading southward through the mountainous regions into British India.

One of the earliest eruptions in this epic struggle was the first Anglo-Afghan War, which had its beginning in the late 1830s. To protect its holdings in India, the British had allied themselves with an Afghan ruler, Dost Mohammed.

He had united warring Afghan factions after seizing power in 1818, and seemed to be serving a useful purpose to the British. But in 1837, it became apparent that Dost Mohammed was beginning a flirtation with the Russians.

Britain Invaded Afghanistan in the Late 1830s

The British resolved to invade Afghanistan, and the Army of the Indus, a formidable force of more than 20,000 British and Indian troops, set off from India for Afghanistan in late 1838. After difficult travel through the mountain passes, the British reached Kabul in April 1839.

They marched unopposed into the Afghan capital city.

Dost Mohammed was toppled as the Afghan leader, and the British installed Shah Shuja, who had been driven from power decades earlier. The original plan was to withdraw all the British troops, but Shah Shuja’s hold on power was shaky, so two brigades of British troops had to remain in Kabul.

Along with the British Army were two major figures assigned to essentially guide the government of Shah Shuja, Sir William McNaghten and Sir Alexander Burnes. The men were two well-known and very experienced political officers. Burnes had lived in Kabul previously, and had written a book about his time there.

The British forces staying in Kabul could have moved into an ancient fortress overlooking the city, but Shah Shuja believed that would make it look like the British were in control. Instead, the British built a new cantonment, or base, that would prove very difficult to defend. Sir Alexander Burnes, feeling quite confident, lived outside the cantonment, in a house in Kabul.

The Afghans Revolted

The Afghan population deeply resented the British troops. Tensions slowly escalated, and despite warnings from friendly Afghans that an uprising was inevitable, the British were unprepared in November 1841 when an insurrection broke out in Kabul.

A mob encircled the house of Sir Alexander Burnes. The British diplomat tried to offer the crowd money to disburse, to no effect. The lightly defended residence was overrun. Burnes and his brother were both brutally murdered.

The British troops in the city were greatly outnumbered and unable to defend themselves properly, as the cantonment was encircled.

A truce was arranged in late November, and it seems the Afghans simply wanted the British to leave the country. But tensions escalated when the son of Dost Mohammed, Muhammad Akbar Khan, appeared in Kabul, and took a harder line.

British Were Forced to Flee

Sir William McNaghten, who had been trying to negotiate a way out of the city, was murdered on December 23, 1841, reportedly by Muhammad Akbar Khan himself. The British, their situation hopeless, somehow managed to negotiate a treaty to leave Afghanistan.

On January 6, 1842, the British began their withdrawal from Kabul. Leaving the city were 4,500 British troops and 12,000 civilians who had followed the British Army to Kabul. The plan was to march to Jalalabad, about 90 miles away.

The retreat in the brutally cold weather took an immediate toll, and many died from exposure in the first days.

And despite the treaty, the British column came under attack when it reached a mountain pass, the Khurd Kabul. The retreat became a massacre.

Slaughter in the Mountain Passes of Afghanistan

A magazine based in Boston, the North American Review, published a remarkably extensive and timely account titled “The English in Afghanistan” six months later, in July 1842. It contained this vivid description (some antiquated spellings have been left intact):

"On the 6th of January, 1842, the Caboul forces commenced their retreat through the dismal pass, destined to be their grave. On the third day they were attacked by the mountaineers from all points, and a fearful slaughter ensued…
"The troops kept on, and awful scenes ensued. Without food, mangled and cut to pieces, each one caring only for himself, all subordination had fled; and the soldiers of the forty-fourth English regiment are reported to have knocked down their officers with the butts of their muskets.

"On the 13th of January, just seven days after the retreat commenced, one man, bloody and torn, mounted on a miserable pony, and pursued by horsemen, was seen riding furiously across the plains to Jellalabad. That was Dr. Brydon, the sole person to tell the tale of the passage of Khourd Caboul."

More than 16,000 people had set out on the retreat from Kabul, and in the end only one man, Dr. William Brydon, a British Army surgeon, had made it alive to Jalalabad. 

The garrison there lit signal fires and sounded bugles to guide other British survivors to safety.

But after several days they realized that Brydon would be the only one. It was believed the Afghans let him live so he could tell the grisly story.

The legend of the sole survivor, while not quite accurate, endured. In the 1870s, a British painter, Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler, produced a dramatic painting of a soldier on a dying horse said to be based on the story of Brydon. The painting, titled "Remnants of an Army," became famous and is in the collection of the Tate Gallery in London. 

The Retreat from Kabul Was a Severe Blow to British Pride

The loss of so many troops to mountain tribesmen was, of course, a bitter humiliation for the British. With Kabul lost, a campaign was mounted to evacuate the rest of the British troops from garrisons in Afghanistan, and the British then withdrew from the country entirely.

And while popular legend held that Dr. Brydon was the only survivor from the horrific retreat from Kabul, some British troops and their wives had been taken hostage by Afghans and were later rescued and released. And a few other survivors turned up over the years.

One account, in a history of Afghanistan by former British diplomat Sir Martin Ewans, contends that in the 1920s two elderly women in Kabul were introduced to British diplomats. Astoundingly, they had been on the retreat as babies. Their British parents had apparently been killed, but they had been rescued and brought up by Afghan families.

Despite the 1842 disaster, the British did not abandon hopes of controlling Afghanistan.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880 secured a diplomatic solution which kept Russian influence out of Afghanistan for the remainder of the 19th century.