A Snapshot of British Retreat

KHORD KABUL January 1842

……Their first night at the mouth of the pass was quiet, and the following morning they marched at dawn into the narrow winding heights of the Khord Kabul. ‘No opposition met them until they were fairly entangled in the pass,’ remembered the chaplain, the Rev. G. R. Gleig, who was planning to return to India with the brigade.   Then from the rocks and precipices on either side, such a storm of fire opened as told of itself that the heights above were occupied in great force. So skilful too were the Afghans in the art of skirmishing, that, except by the flashes which their matchlocks emitted, it was
impossible to tell where the marksmen lay. Rocks and stones, some of them hardly larger than a thirteen-inch shell, seemed to offer them excellent shelter. They squatted down showing nothing above the crag except the long barrels of their fusils and the tops of their turbans; and with such unerring aim were their shots thrown that, both in the advance guard, and from the body of the column, men began to drop.    It was already becoming clear, as an official report to Calcutta pointed out, that in the high passes ‘our regular European and Hindoostanee Troops fight against Afghans in their native hills to a great disadvantage. The superior agility of the latter enables them to evade pursuit and their jezails or long guns carry with deadly precision to a distance where our muskets are harmless.’  The ability of the Afghans to melt invisibly into the landscape also alarmed the British; as Sale reported to his wife, ‘until they commenced firing, not a man was known to be there’.

Despite this, Sale’s force pushed on down the Khord Kabul Pass, reinforced by more troops from Kabul and taking increasingly heavy casualties as they went, Sale again directing operations, this time from a palanquin. The worst losses took place during another night attack a week later on 17 October. Around 5 p.m., one of the Tezin chiefs sent a note to the British ‘saying that they had arrived at the Tung-i-Tareekhi [the Dark Gorge], and that in two hours they would attack us. A polite reply was sent to the effect that we should be happy to receive the chiefs, and would endeavour to give them a suitable welcome.’  The note proved a stratagem: by telling the British to expect a frontal attack, and beginning to launch one, the Ghilzai managed to surprise the British when their main force appeared to the rear, where some of Shah Shuja’s newly recruited Hazirbash cavalry had been bribed to let them within the camp: ‘They were of the same tribe, and whilst the rest were fighting, these ever-ready gentlemen did a little work of their own, cutting downs surwans [camel drivers] and hamstringing camels.’

‘You came to Kabul for fruit, did you? How do you like it now?’ they cried.

……It was nonetheless an extraordinary defeat for the British and an almost miraculous victory for the Afghan resistance. At the very height of the British Empire, at a point when the British controlled more of the world economy than they would ever do again, and at a time when traditional forces were everywhere being massacred by industrialized colonial armies, it was a rare moment of complete colonial humiliation.

_ The Return Of The King by William Darlympyle_