1838 Nov 25
, Ferozepur

The 19th century was a period of diplomatic competition between the British and Russian empires for spheres of influence in South Asia known as the "Great Game" to the British and the "Tournament of Shadows" to the Russians. With the exception of Emperor Paul who ordered an invasion of India in 1800 (which was cancelled after his assassination in 1801), no Russian tsar ever seriously considered invading India, but for most of the 19th century, Russia was viewed as "the enemy" in Britain; and any Russian advance into Central Asia, into what is now Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, was always assumed (in London) to be directed towards the conquest of India, as the American historian David Fromkin observed, "no matter how far-fetched" such an interpretation might be. In 1837, Lord Palmerston and John Hobhouse, fearing the instability of Afghanistan, the Sindh, and the increasing power of the Sikh kingdom to the northwest, raised the spectre of a possible Russian invasion of British India through Afghanistan. The idea that Russia was a threat to the East India Company is one version of events. Scholars now favour a different interpretation that the fear of the East India Company was in fact the decision of Dost Mohammed Khan and the Qajar Ruler of Iran to form an alliance and extinguish Sikh rule in Punjab. The British feared that an invading Islamic army would lead to an uprising in India by the people and princely states therefore it was decided to replace Dost Mohammed Khan with a more pliant ruler.

On 1 October 1838 Lord Auckland issued the Simla Declaration attacking Dost Mohammed Khan for making "an unprovoked attack" on the empire of "our ancient ally, Maharaja Ranjeet Singh", going on to declare that Shuja Shah was "popular throughout Afghanistan" and would enter his former realm "surrounded by his own troops and be supported against foreign interference and factious opposition by the British Army". Lord Auckland declared that the "Grand Army of the Indus" would now start the march on Kabul to depose Dost Mohammed and put Shuja Shah back on the Afghan throne, ostensibly because the latter was the rightful Emir, but in reality to place Afghanistan into the British sphere of influence. Speaking in the House of Lords, the Duke of Wellington condemned the invasion, saying that the real difficulties would only begin after the invasion's success, predicting that the Anglo-Indian forces would rout the Afghan tribal levy, only to find themselves struggling to hold on, as the Hindu Kush mountains and Afghanistan had no modern roads, and calling the entire operation "stupid" since Afghanistan was a land of "rocks, sands, deserts, ice and snow".

The Opening in to the Narrow Path above the Siri Bolan from James Atkinson's Sketches in Afghaunistan | ©James Atkinson

British invasion of Afghanistan

1838 Dec 1
, Kandahar

The "Army of the Indus" which included 21,000 British and Indian troops under the command of John Keane, 1st Baron Keane set out from Punjab in December 1838. With them was William Hay Macnaghten, the former chief secretary of the Calcutta government, who had been selected as Britain's chief representative to Kabul. It included an immense train of 38,000 camp followers and 30,000 camels, plus a large herd of cattle. The British intended to be comfortable – one regiment took its pack of foxhounds, another took two camels to carry its cigarettes, junior officers were accompanied by up to 40 servants, and one senior officer required 60 camels to carry his personal effects.

By late March 1839 the British forces had crossed the Bolan Pass, reached the southern Afghan city of Quetta, and begun their march to Kabul. They advanced through rough terrain, across deserts and high mountain passes, but made good progress and finally set up camps at Kandahar on 25 April 1839. After reaching Kandahar, Keane decided to wait for the crops to ripen before resuming his march, so it was not until 27 June that the Grand Army of the Indus marched again. Keane left behind his siege engines in Kandahar, which turned out to be a mistake as he discovered that the walls of the Ghazni fortress were far stronger than he expected. A deserter, Abdul Rashed Khan, a nephew of Dost Mohammad Khan, informed the British that one of the gates of the fortress was in bad state of repair and might be blasted open with a gunpowder charge. Before the fortress, the British were attacked by a force of the Ghilji tribesmen fighting under the banner of jihad who were desperate to kill farangis, a pejorative Pashtun term for the British, and were beaten off. The British took fifty prisoners who were brought before Shuja, where one of them stabbed a minister to death with a hidden knife.

A British-Indian force attacks the Ghazni fort during the First Afghan War, 1839

Battle of Ghazni

1839 Jul 23
, Ghazni

On 23 July 1839, in a surprise attack, the British-led forces captured the fortress of Ghazni, which overlooks a plain leading eastward into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The British troops blew up one city gate and marched into the city in a euphoric mood. During the battle, the British suffered 200 killed and wounded, while the Afghans suffered 500 killed and 1,500 captured. Ghazni was well-supplied, which eased the further advance considerably.

Following this and an uprising of Tajiks in Istalif, the British marched to Kabul with no resistance from Dost Mohammad's troops. With his situation rapidly deteriorating, Dost Mohammed offered to accept Shuja as his overlord in exchange for becoming his wazir (a common practice in Pashtunwali), which was promptly turned down. In August 1839, after thirty years, Shuja was again enthroned in Kabul. Shuja promptly confirmed his reputation for cruelty by seeking to wreak vengeance on all who had crossed him as he considered his own people to be "dogs" who needed to be taught to obey their master.

Dost Mohammad Khan with one of his sons.

Dost Mohammed flees to Bukhara

1840 Nov 2
, Bukhara

Dost Mohammad fled to the emir of Bukhara who violated the traditional code of hospitality by throwing Dost Mohammad into his dungeon, where he joined Colonel Charles Stoddart. Stoddart had been sent to Bukhara to sign a treaty of friendship and arrange a subsidy to keep Bukhara in the British sphere of influence, but was sent to the dungeon when Nasrullah Khan decided the British were not offering him a big enough bribe. Unlike Stoddart, Dost Mohammad was able to escape from the dungeon and fled south to Afghanistan.

Dost Mohammad Khan’s surrender in 1840 following his victory at Parwan Darra.

Dost Mohammad Khan surrenders

1840 Nov 2
, Darrah-ye Qotandar

Dost Mohammed fled the dubious hospitality of the Emir of Bukhara and on 2 November 1840, his forces turned around at Parwan Darra to meet British general Robert Sale, where he successfully defeated the 2nd Bengal Cavalry. This was principally because the Indians in the 2nd Bengal Cavalry failed to follow their officers who charged towards Dost Mohammed, "The explanation offered by the cavalrymen for not fighting was "that they object to the English sabres" . The simple fact was that despite Britain's industrial revolution, the handcrafted Afghan jezail and sword were far superior to their British counterparts.

Despite Sale having little to show for the campaign and the trail of devastation left by him, Sale called Parwan Darra a victory. However he was unable to conceal the fact of the 2nd Bengal horse defying orders, and as a result, many British officers were killed. Atkinson, the armies surgeon general, called the encounter a “disaster”, Kaye also called the battle a defeat. However, early in the evening of 2 November 1840, a horsemen identified as Sultan Muhammad Khan Safi rode up to Macnaghten, as with this, he was followed by another lone horsemen, who came up to Macnaghten. This horsemen was no other then Dost Mohammad Khan. Despite his victory, Dost Mohammad Khan surrendered. He was sent to India in exile after hearing rumours of assassination plots against him.

Etching of Kabul by an Italian artist, 1885


1841 Jan 1
, Kabul

The majority of the British troops returned to India, leaving 8,000 in Afghanistan, but it soon became clear that Shuja's rule could only be maintained with the presence of a stronger British force. The Afghans resented the British presence and the rule of Shah Shuja. As the occupation dragged on, the East India Company's first political officer William Hay Macnaghten allowed his soldiers to bring their families to Afghanistan to improve morale; this further infuriated the Afghans, as it appeared the British were setting up a permanent occupation. Macnaghten purchased a mansion in Kabul, where he installed his wife, crystal chandelier, a fine selection of French wines, and hundreds of servants from India, making himself completely at home. Macnaghten, who had once been a judge in a small town in Ulster before deciding he wanted to be much more than a small town judge in Ireland, was known for his arrogant, imperious manner, and was simply called "the Envoy" by both the Afghans and the British. The wife of one British officer, Lady Florentia Sale created an English style garden at her house in Kabul, which was much admired and in August 1841 her daughter Alexadrina was married at her Kabul home to Lieutenant John Sturt of the Royal Engineers. The British officers staged horse races, played cricket and in winter ice skating over the frozen local ponds, which astonished the Afghans who had never seen this before.

Afghan bribes reduced

Afghan bribes reduced

1841 Apr 1
, Hindu Kush

Between April and October 1841, disaffected Afghan tribes were flocking to support resistance against the British in Bamiyan and other areas north of the Hindu Kush mountains. They were organised into an effective resistance by chiefs such as Mir Masjidi Khan and others. In September 1841, Macnaghten reduced the subsidies paid out to Ghilzai tribal chiefs in exchange for accepting Shuja as Emir and to keep the passes open, which immediately led to the Ghazis rebelling and a jihad being proclaimed. The monthly subsidies, which were effectively bribes for the Ghazi chiefs to stay loyal, was reduced from 80,000 to 40,000 rupees at a time of rampant inflation, and as the chiefs' loyalty had been entirely financial, the call of jihad proved stronger. Macnaghten did not take the threat seriously at first, writing to Henry Rawlinson in Kandahar on 7 October 1841: "The Eastern Ghilzyes are kicking up a row about some deductions which have been made from their pay. The rascals have completely succeeded in cutting communications for the time being, which is very provoking to me at this time; but they will be well trounced for their pains. One down, t'other come on, is the principle of these vagabonds".

Macnaghten ordered an expedition. On 10 October 1841, the Ghazis in a night raid defeated the Thirty-fifth Native Infantry, but were defeated the next day by the Thirteenth Light Infantry. After their defeat, which led to the rebels fleeing to the mountains, Macnaghten overplayed his hand by demanding that the chiefs who rebelled now send their children to Shuja's court as hostages to prevent another rebellion. As Shuja had a habit of mutilating people who displeased him in the slightest, Macnaghten's demand that the children of the chiefs go to the Emir's court was received with horror, which led the Ghazi chiefs to vow to fight on. Macnaghten, who had just been appointed as the governor of Bombay was torn between a desire to leave Afghanistan on a high note with the country settled and peaceful versus a desire to crush the Ghazis, which led him to temporize, at one moment threatening the harshest reprisals and the next moment, compromising by abandoning his demand for hostages. Macnaghten's alternating policy of confrontation and compromise was perceived as weakness, which encouraged the chiefs around Kabul to start rebelling. Shuja was so unpopular that many of his ministers and the Durrani clan joined the rebellion.

The Afghans kill Sir Alexander Burnes in Kabul, November 1841.

Afghan revolt

1841 Nov 2
, Kabul

On the night of 1 November 1841, a group of Afghan chiefs met at the Kabul house of one of their number to plan the uprising, which began in the morning of the next day. In a flammable situation, the spark was provided unintentionally by the East India Company's second political officer, Sir Alexander 'Sekundar' Burnes. A Kashmiri slave girl who belonged to a Pashtun chief Abdullah Khan Achakzai living in Kabul ran away to Burne's house. When Ackakzai sent his retainers to retrieve her, it was discovered that Burnes had taken the slave girl to his bed, and he had one of Azkakzai's men beaten. A secret jirga (council) of Pashtun chiefs was held to discuss this violation of pashtunwali, where Ackakzai holding a Koran in one hand stated: "Now we are justified in throwing this English yoke; they stretch the hand of tyranny to dishonor private citizens great and small: fucking a slave girl isn't worth the ritual bath that follows it: but we have to put a stop right here and now, otherwise these English will ride the donkey of their desires into the field of stupidity, to the point of having all of us arrested and deported to a foreign field". At the end of his speech, all of the chiefs shouted "Jihad". November 2, 1841 actually fell on 17 Ramadan which was the anniversary date for the battle of Badr. The Afghans decided to strike on this date for reasons of the blessings associated with this auspicious date of 17 Ramadan. The call to jihad was given on the morning of 2 November from the Pul-i-khisti mosque in Kabul

That same day, a mob "thirsting for blood" appeared outside of the house of the East India Company's second political officer, Sir Alexander 'Sekundar' Burnes, where Burnes ordered his sepoy guards not to fire while he stood outside haranguing the mob in Pashto, attempting unconvincingly to persuade the assembled men that he did not bed their daughters and sisters. The mob smashed in to Burnes's house, where he, his brother Charles, their wives and children, several aides and the sepoys were all torn to pieces. The British forces took no action in response despite being only five minutes away, which encouraged further revolt. The only person who took action that day was Shuja who ordered out one of his regiments from the Bala Hissar commanded by a Scots mercenary named Campbell to crush the riot, but the old city of Kabul with its narrow, twisting streets favored the defenders, with Campbell's men coming under fire from rebels in the houses above. After losing about 200 men killed, Campbell retreated back to the Bala Hissar. The British situation soon deteriorated when Afghans stormed the poorly defended supply fort inside Kabul on 9 November.

In the following weeks, the British commanders tried to negotiate with Akbar Khan. Macnaghten secretly offered to make Akbar Afghanistan's vizier in exchange for allowing the British to stay, while simultaneously disbursing large sums of money to have him assassinated, which was reported to Akbar Khan. A meeting for direct negotiations between Macnaghten and Akbar was held near the cantonment on 23 December, but Macnaghten and the three officers accompanying him were seized and slain by Akbar Khan. Macnaghten's body was dragged through the streets of Kabul and displayed in the bazaar. Elphinstone had partly lost command of his troops already and his authority was badly damaged.

A 1909 illustration by Arthur David McCormick depicting British troops trying to fight their way through the pass.

1842 retreat from Kabul

1842 Jan 6 - Jan 13
, Kabul - Jalalabad Road

An uprising in Kabul forced the then commander, Major-General William Elphinstone, to fall back to the British garrison at Jalalabad. As the army and its numerous dependents and camp followers began its march, it came under attack from Afghan tribesmen. Many of the column died of exposure, frostbite or starvation, or were killed during the fighting.

An uprising in Kabul forced Maj. Gen. Elphinstone to withdraw. To this end he negotiated an agreement with Wazir Akbar Khan, one of the sons of Dost Mohammad Barakzai, by which his army was to fall back to the Jalalabad garrison, more than 140 kilometres away. The Afghans launched numerous attacks against the column as it made slow progress through the winter snows along the route that is now the Kabul–Jalalabad Road. In total the British army lost 4,500 troops, along with about 12,000 civilians: the latter comprising both the families of Indian and British soldiers, plus workmen, servants and other Indian camp followers. The final stand was made just outside a village called Gandamak on 13 January.

Battle of Gandamak | ©William Barnes Wollen

Battle of Gandamak

1842 Jan 13
, Gandamak

The Battle of Gandamak on 13 January 1842 was a defeat of British forces by Afghan tribesmen in the 1842 retreat from Kabul of General Elphinstone's army, during which the last survivors of the force—twenty officers and forty-five British soldiers of the 44th East Essex Regiment—were killed.

The biggest single surviving group of men, consisting of 20 officers and 45 European soldiers, mostly infantry from the 44th Regiment of Foot, tried to press on but found themselves surrounded on a snowy hillock near the village of Gandamak. With only 20 working muskets and two shots per weapon, the troops refused to surrender. A British sergeant is said to have cried "not bloody likely!" when the Afghans tried to persuade the soldiers they would spare their lives. Sniping then began, followed by a series of rushes; soon the hillock was overrun by tribesmen. Soon, the remaining troops were killed.

Remnants of an Army, depicting the arrival of assistant surgeon, William Brydon, at Jalalabad on 13 January 1842. | ©Elizabeth Butler

Survivors arrives in Jalalabad

1842 Jan 14
, Jalalabad

Out of more than 16,000 people from the column commanded by Elphinstone, only one European (Assistant Surgeon William Brydon) and a few Indian sepoys reached Jalalabad. Over one hundred British prisoners and civilian hostages were later released. Around 2,000 of the Indians, many of whom were maimed by frostbite, survived and returned to Kabul to exist by begging or to be sold into slavery. Some at least returned to India after another British invasion of Kabul several months later, but others remained behind in Afghanistan.

Many of the women and children were taken captive by the Afghan warring tribes; some of these women married their captors, mostly Afghan and Indian camp followers who were wives of British officers. Children taken from the battlefield at the time who were later identified in the early part of the 20th century to be those of the fallen soldiers were brought up by Afghan families as their own children.

Encampment of the Kandahar Army, under General Nott. | ©Lieutenant James Rattray

Kabul Expedition

1842 Aug 1 - Oct
, Kabul

The Battle of Kabul was part of a punitive campaign undertaken by the British against the Afghans following the disastrous retreat from Kabul. Two British and East India Company armies advanced on the Afghan capital from Kandahar and Jalalabad to avenge the complete annihilation of a small military column in January 1842. Having recovered prisoners captured during the retreat, the British demolished parts of Kabul before withdrawing to India. The action was the concluding engagement to the First Anglo-Afghan War.


1843 Jan 1
, Afghanistan

Many voices in Britain, from Lord Aberdeen to Benjamin Disraeli, had criticized the war as rash and insensate. The perceived threat from Russia was vastly exaggerated, given the distances, the almost impassable mountain barriers, and logistical problems that an invasion would have to solve. In the three decades after the First Anglo-Afghan War, the Russians did advance steadily southward towards Afghanistan. In 1842, the Russian border was on the other side of the Aral Sea from Afghanistan. By 1865 Tashkent had been formally annexed, as was Samarkand three years later. A peace treaty in 1873 with Amir Alim Khan of the Manghit Dynasty, the ruler of Bukhara, virtually stripped him of his independence. Russian control then extended as far as the northern bank of the Amu Darya.

In 1878, the British invaded again, beginning the Second Anglo-Afghan War.


References for First Anglo-Afghan War.

  • Dalrymple, William (2012). Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1-4088-1830-5.
  • Findlay, Adam George (2015). Preventing Strategic Defeat: A Reassessment of the First Anglo-Afghan War (PDF) (PhD thesis). Canberra: University of New South Wales.
  • Lee, Jonathan L. (15 January 2019). Afghanistan: A History from 1260 to the Present. Reaktion Books. ISBN 978-1-78914-010-1.
  • Fowler, Corinne (2007). Chasing Tales: Travel Writing, Journalism and the History of British Ideas about Afghanistan. Amsterdam: Brill | Rodopi. doi:10.1163/9789401204873. ISBN 978-90-420-2262-1.
  • Greenwood, Joseph (1844). Narrative of the Late Victorious Campaign in Affghanistan, under General Pollock: With Recollections of Seven Years' service in India. London: Henry Colburn.
  • Hopkirk, Peter (1990). The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia. London: John Murray. ISBN 978-1-56836-022-5.
  • Kaye, John William (1851). History of the War in Afghanistan. London: Richard Bentley.
  • Macrory, Patrick A. (1966). The Fierce Pawns. New York: J. B. Lippincott Company.
  • Macrory, Patrick A. (2002). Retreat from Kabul: The Catastrophic British Defeat in Afghanistan, 1842. Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press. ISBN 978-1-59921-177-0. OCLC 148949425.
  • Morris, Mowbray (1878). The First Afghan War. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington.
  • Perry, James M. (1996). Arrogant Armies: Great Military Disasters and the Generals Behind Them. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-471-11976-0.