Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
THE FIRST AFGHAN WAR
 IN 1837 the ruler of Afghanistan was called Dost
Muhammad. He was a rough soldier, young and brave, and
he had proved himself a good ruler of Afghanistan,
although he had no real right to the throne.
Afghanistan, like other countries, had been torn with
wars and revolts. The real ruler, Shah Shuja, had
fled, and was now living in India under British
Ever since the days of Peter the Great, Russia has been
spreading her empire southward until; "Russian designs
on India" have become a sort of nightmare to Indian
rulers, for now only Afghanistan lies between British
India and Russia.
But in 1837 the Punjab had not yet become a part of
British India, and it also lay between, and its ruler,
Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Lahore, was friendly to the
British. The British wanted to make sure that
Afghanistan was also friendly, and Lord Auckland, who
was now Governor-General, sent a messenger to the court
of Afghanistan. This messenger was supposed to be
going to arrange about trade. But trade had little to
do with it. He really went to persuade the Afghans to
be friends with the British, and to make war, if need
be, with the Russians.
There had been war between the Afghans and Ranjit
Singh, and he had taken part of Afghanistan called the
 Peshawar valley. Dost Muhammad was very anxious to get
this back again, and was willing to promise the British
anything if they would help him to get it.
But as Ranjit Singh and the British were friends, Lord
Auckland refused. It was not the habit of the British,
he said, to interfere in quarrels between other states.
So his messenger came back from Afghanistan without
having been able to arrange anything. And at the same
time a Russian messenger was kindly received there.
Lord Auckland then made up his mind, that as Dost
Muhammad would not do as he wanted, he would put a king
on the throne who would. So he sent an army into
Afghanistan to drive Dost Muhammad from the throne, and
set foolish old Shah Shuja upon it.
This was surely folly, for the Afghans were well
content with their ruler. They hated Shah Shuja, who
was proud and haughty, and "neither a soldier nor a
gentleman." Years before they had driven him out, and
now that he was old and stupid, they certainly did not
want him back again.
Ranjit Singh, although he was quite friendly, wanted to
have as little to do with the British as possible. Now
he refused to allow our army to pass through his lands.
So it was obliged to go by Sind, which at this time was
not under British rule. But the ruler of Sind was not
so strong as Ranjit Singh, and so was unable to prevent
the army passing through his land.
It was a long, weary march that now began. At first
the roads were good. Then came long tracts of pathless
desert where wild hill-men attacked the soldiers. The
country was barren, and food grew scarce. Half starved
and weary the army at last arrived at Kandahar.
Here the Shah rode in triumph through the town.
 Crowds of people thronged the streets, but it was
curiosity, not love, that brought them. Along a path
strewn with roses, with beat of drum and thunder of
guns, and the shouts of a half-hearted few in his ears,
the Shah rode to the tomb of his forefathers, to give
thanks for his restoration.
Thus far there had been little fighting. Now there was
a fierce battle, when Ghazni, the strongest fortress in
Afghanistan, was taken. When Dost Muhammad heard the
news he fled, and a few weeks later Shah Shuja rode in
triumph into Kabul.
Seated upon a white horse, gorgeously clad, and
sparkling with jewels, surrounded and followed by
splendidly dressed servants, the Shah rode towards the
palace from which, thirty years before, he had been
hunted out. With him rode the British officers in
their gayest uniforms. But as the glittering
procession passed through the streets there was never a
cheer. The sullen, scowling Afghans scarcely turned
their heads to look at their returned king, or at the
hated white-faced "Feringees" who had brought him.
Lord Auckland had said that as soon as the king was
seated again upon his throne the British army would
leave Afghanistan. But now that was found to be
impossible. The Shah was indeed once more upon his
throne, but it was only the glitter of English gold,
and the gleam of English bayonets, that kept him there.
The people did not want him, and it was easily seen
that as soon as the British left, they would drive the
Shah away once more.
So ten thousand British soldiers stayed in Afghanistan,
and thousands of pounds in good British gold were paid
to the wild hill-men to keep them quiet. Months
passed, Dost Muhammad yielded himself a prisoner, the
 people were sunk in a gloomy, sullen quiet. The
British believed that they were conquered, that they
had accepted the ruler thrust upon them. English
ladies came from India to join their husbands and
brothers. Soon, in the heart of Afghanistan, the
British had settled down to the gay social life of
home. In summer they shot, and fished, and rode. In
winter they skated and danced. And all the time they
were making merry on a volcano, all the time the hatred
of the Afghans seethed and boiled in secret.
At last it burst out. Early on the morning of the 2nd
of November 1841 the streets of Kabul were filled with
angry crowds. As the hours went on, the crowds grew
denser and wilder. Thirsting for blood, eager for
revenge, they attacked the houses of the British. Men,
women, and children were slaughtered. Houses were
robbed, wrecked, and burned. The whole town was one
seething mass of uproar and riot. Mad with blood, the
Afghans became cursing, howling beasts.
Yet the British did little or nothing. They had six
thousand troops ready to command. But no orders were
given. "We must see what the morning brings, and then
think what can be done," said the commander. He waited
to think "to-morrow" when he ought to have been acting.
So all day the riot raged, and it was only with the
falling darkness that the city sank once more to rest.
Next day things grew worse. From every side Afghans
poured into the city. Seeing that the British had not
crushed the rioters at once, every man took heart
again, and did his best to drive the hated foreigners
out. Day after day passed, days of horror, filled with
fighting, with mistakes, with misfortunes, with
commands given and withdrawn, with misery and
 The Afghans commanded the surrounding hills. They were
splendid marksmen, and their guns carried farther than
the British muskets. Secure upon the heights they
aimed at leisure, and the British went down before them
like slaughtered sheep.
The fort, in which food for the British army was
stored, fell into the hands of the Afghans. Hungry and
weary the men lost heart, and discipline was at an end.
"Our troops are acting like a pack of cowards and there
is no spirit left amongst us. We have only three days"
provisions for our men and nothing for our cattle,"
At last even the blindest had to admit that there was
nothing left but to get out of Afghanistan as best and
as fast as they could.
So the British Ambassador had a meeting with the Afghan
chiefs. At this meeting it was agreed that Dost
Muhammad should be given back to the Afghans, and, that
in return, the British army should be allowed to march
out of Afghanistan in safety.
But even now there were delays. The Ambassador began
to think that he might make better terms, and that
after all he would not need to march back in the
disgrace of defeat. He began to plot with some of the
Afghan chiefs. But they had only led him in order to
destroy him, and when he met with them upon the hill
slopes outside the town, he was foully murdered in
broad daylight. His body was then cut to pieces, and
his head was carried through the town in triumph. And
the British were powerless to avenge the insult. Days
of humiliation and misery followed, but at last
everything was arranged, and the long march homeward
Four thousand soldiers and twelve thousand camp
followers, many of them women and children—ladies,
 unused to hardship, children unable to walk—streamed
out of the fatal town into the country beyond. They
meant to make their way to Jellalabad, where there was
a British garrison.
It was a clear and sunny winter's morning, but bitterly
cold, and snow lay thick upon the ground. Hardly had
the British left their houses when the Afghans swarmed
into them seeking plunder. They found little, for the
British had carried away or destroyed all that they
possessed. So in their disappointment and rage the
Afghans wrecked the houses and set them on fire. Then
they followed the retreating army.
"CRUSHED BY ROLLING STONES, MOWN DOWN BY VOLLEYS OF MUSKET-SHOT,
THE MEN FELL IN HUNDREDS."
Soon the white snow was trampled and brown, and stained
with blood, and all the ways were strewn with dead and
dying. It was a bad beginning to the long march, and
as it began, so it went on. While the crowd of men,
women, and children, wound through the narrow valleys,
the wild hill tribes rushed down upon them from the
heights, slaughtering them without mercy. The march
became a headlong flight. In the frantic rush,
baggage, ammunition, provisions, all were left behind.
Without tents, without food or shelter, many lay down
to die in the snow. Attacked by their pitiless
enemies, they could scarce defend themselves. Muskets
dropped from their numbed, frost-bitten fingers, and
they were mown down like corn before the reaper.
The son of Dost Muhammad, who had promised that the
army should march in safety, was powerless against the
wild hill tribes. But he now offered to take care of
the ladies and the children, and with heavy hearts the
men gave them into his keeping. It was a terrible
risk, for how could any one be sure that they would not
all be murdered horribly. Yet there was a chance that
this wild Afghan would keep his word and bring them to
 safety, and if they went on with the army, they must
all certainly die of the hardships of the way. The
Afghan chief did keep his word, and months later all
those left in his charge returned home in safety.
Faint with hunger, sick and numb with cold, the men
continued the march. But they could not escape from
their savage black enemies. Crushed by rolling stones,
mowed down by volleys of musket shot, cut to pieces by
knives, pierced by bayonets, the men fell by hundreds,
and the army grew smaller and smaller.
At last, on the morning of the thirteenth of January, a
sentry on the ramparts of Jellalabad looked out along
the road from Kabul. There he saw one lone traveller
come. He rode a lean and wretched pony, and bent
forward, clinging to its mane like one in deadly agony.
Soon the wall was thick with anxious men straining
eager eyes towards the lonely horseman. As they gazed,
their hearts sank within them. It seemed as if he were
the messenger of some dark mischance. Then flinging
themselves into the saddle, a party rode out to meet
Stricken, wan, more dead than alive, they brought him
in. And when his white lips could speak, they learned
that he alone, of all the sixteen thousand who had set
out from Kabul, was alive to tell the tale of that
awful journey of a hundred miles through mountain
passes, beset with foes.
From first to last the expedition to Afghanistan had
been a mistake, and the British had to acknowledge that
they had been beaten. But they could not remain
beaten. Besides, there were those hundred or more
women and children in the hands of the Afghans who must
So an army was sent to avenge the defeat. Once
 again Kabul was taken, once again the British flag was
planted upon the ramparts. But meanwhile Shah Shuja
had been murdered, so Dost Muhammad came back to his
throne, and the British army marched away to India
leaving the Afghans to themselves.