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Elphinstone had fought well at Waterloo in 1815 but by 1842 he was 60 years old, sick, and mentally worn out. His folly and constant indecisiveness suggests he may have been suffering from premature senility. The army he commanded was far weaker than its nominal strength of about 17,000 suggests. About 12,500 of these were civilian camp-followers and bearers.
The few soldiers were nearly all Indian Sepoys from the East India Company, acclimatized and equipped for campaigning on the hot Indian plains, not for an Afghan winter in the mountains. There was only one British infantry formation, a battalion of the 44th Regiment — less than 700 men. The presence of British officers’ wives and children must have been a further handicap. The most sophisticated transport was horses and bullock-drawn carts and carriages.
In January, 1842, in the depths of winter, Elphinstone, instead of holing up in the strong Kabul fortifications for a few weeks and waiting for spring, ordered a retreat across the blizzard-swept Afghan passes. By his general indecisiveness and passivity after the murder of MacNaughten and other political officers earlier he had demonstrated weakness to the Afghan tribal and religious leaders who wanted to oust Shah Shuja.
The British left Kabul peacefully after an agreement with the Afghans, but as soon as they were strung out in column they began coming under attack. Apart from the Afghan leaders (who may not have been fully in control of events) probably playing a complicated double game, Russian agents probably encouraged and bribed Islamic fanatics to rouse the tribesman.
Both sides were armed with muskets, swords, and lances. The British cannon had to be abandoned. The wretched East India Company Sepoys and camp-followers were soon cut to pieces and the baggage and transport animals carried off. The handful of British troops struggled in several feet of snow through more than 40 miles of treacherous gorges and passes — perfectly positioned as ambush sites and killing-grounds — under constant attack.
When on 12 January the last 65 British troops made a stand at Gandamack, refusing to surrender, they had only about a dozen working muskets. They were more than 100 years too early for helicopters to lift them out. The force was wiped out with the exception of Dr. William Brydon and possibly a few other stragglers. Some others, including some wives and children, survived, having been made prisoners earlier. (The bones of the men of the 44th were found among the desolate rocks of Gandamack in 1979.).
A dramatic painting executed in 1879 by Lady Butler, of Brydon reaching the British lines at Jalalabad — this sole exhausted man and foundering horse being captioned with stark eloquence “The Remnants of an Army” — became a famous icon of Imperial heroism and tragedy. A painting of the last stand at Gandamack also became famous and has been displayed recently in the National Army Museum in London. Such works helped create the impression that Afghanistan was the place where invading armies perished. Perhaps it was also thought that such images would give the Russians a message too, and therefore had some official encouragement. In recent times George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels brought the horror of the 1842 retreat vividly home to new generations of readers.p> THE ENDURING POTENCY OF THE MYTH is demonstrated by a story which appeared in the British press just a few days ago: br> /p>
I was sent an e-mail yesterday from an old military friend depicting the famous picture by Lady Butler — painter of Victorian military heroics par excellence — of the lone nag carrying the exhausted frame of Dr William Bryden into Jalalabad, the sole survivor of the retreating column of 16,000 [sic] British and local troops….The picture, is the “Awful Warning” poster of British involvement in Afghanistan, which has involved no fewer than three [sic] full-blown wars, punitive expeditions, and bombing by the early RAF…br> Robert Fisk’s version is as follows: br>
One of the greatest defeats of British forces anywhere in the world had occurred more than four decades before Maiwand, on the Kabul Gorge in 1842, when an entire British army was wiped out by Afghan fighters in the snow.br> His description of the small shambolic force with its 600-odd British troops as “an entire British army,” speaks for itself as a guide to the inner workings of Mr. Fisk. In fact the affair did not prove much militarily. It was a one-off, and it was a failure not of fighting ability but basically of a single leader who should never have had such a command. The British counter-attacked with a large and well-led army and reached Kabul without great difficulty, destroyed the citadel and city centre in retaliation for the previous treachery, rescued British prisoners, and wiped out resistance. It then returned to India because Shah Shuja had been assassinated and the British East India Company thought it unprofitable and pointless to continue to occupy the barren country.
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