The First Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-1842

10 mins read

What can we learn from history about the current war in Afghanistan? Four times – in 1839, 1878, 1919, and 2001 – the country has been invaded by a British army. In this monthly mini-series, we review the chequered history of Anglo-Afghan conflict.

Until January 1842, the idea that an unorganised band of Afghan hillmen could have defeated the mighty Anglo-Indian Army would have been considered absurd. Yet, on the 13th of that month, when the lone and ravaged figure of Dr William Brydon arrived at Jalalabad, he brought with him the news that would destroy the myth of British invincibility in Central Asia. His story was a sinister portent of things to come, and it would leave the authorities in London and Calcutta scrabbling desperately for explanations.
By the 1830s, after the fall of Napoleonic France, Russia had emerged as Britain’s predominant imperial rival. Competition between the two states for power and influence in Central Asia would give rise to a ‘Great Game’ of wars, intrigue, and espionage that would continue into the first decades of the 20th century.
India was the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire, providing a seemingly infinite flow of wealth and power for its imperial masters: a prize the Tsars sought for themselves. From the sea, the subcontinent was impenetrable, access to it blocked by British naval supremacy. Any successful invasion would have to come by land. Russian expansion into Central Asia and increasing influence in Iran’s foreign policy threatened to open a route through which to strike southwards at the soft underbelly of British India.
Afghanistan, a seemingly insignificant, fragmented, and impoverished tribal society held the key to the two nations’ ambitions in Asia. The British were uninterested in incorporating Afghanistan into their empire. Rather, the government saw Afghanistan as a buffer zone between their possessions in India and an ever-encroaching Russia. If Cossack and Sepoy were to meet in battle, it was best done as far from India as possible.
In 1837, an envoy in the form of William Burnes was sent to the court of Dost Muhammad Khan, Afghanistan’s emir, to secure an alliance against Russia. Muhammad agreed in principle, but with the proviso that Britain should help the Afghans regain control of Peshawar from the princes of Lahore.
Lahore lay on the border of India and was one of Britain’s more fragile allies in the subcontinent. It was not a state the British were willing to alienate. Consequently, the negotiations with Dost Muhammad failed. And further to this, as far as the British were concerned, he would have to be removed.
Shah Shuja had ruled Afghanistan from 1803 to 1809, before being deposed by Dost Muhammad. The suggestion now was that he should be reinstalled on the Afghan throne. As early as 1831, Shah Shuja had let it be known that if he were in power, he would happily open Afghanistan’s trade routes to the British. Shuja would, to all intents and purposes, sit as the puppet ruler of an Anglo-friendly buffer zone.
In October 1838, the Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, issued a manifesto outlining the reasons for British intervention in Afghanistan. The official line was that British troops would be present in Afghanistan merely to support Shah Shuja’s army in retaking what was rightfully his. Once he was firmly installed in Kabul, British troops would leave the country.


The invasion began in December 1838, when an army totalling 39,000 men left the Punjab and entered Afghanistan. With them travelled William Hay Macnaghten who was to be the British Chief Representative in Kabul. The harsh Afghan climate and rugged landscape was soon telling on the Anglo-Indian troops as they trudged deeper into the country. Nevertheless, by 25 April they had arrived at Kandahar, resistance having melted away, and Shah Shuja, flanked by his British allies, entered the traditional seat of his ruling dynasty to a joyous reception.
The capture of Kandahar was swiftly followed by the storming of the ‘impregnable’ fortress of Ghanzi and the decisive rout of Dost Muhammad’s army. In August of 1839, Shah Shuja entered Kabul and once again became ruler of Afghanistan.
That should have been it. Shah Shuja and his British allies had achieved what appeared to be a remarkable victory. Not for the last time, the invaders of Afghanistan were beguiled by an initial easy triumph. For in fact, the scene had been set for a catastrophic defeat that would shatter British prestige and drive them out of Afghanistan for a generation.
Shah Shuja’s government was immediately unpopular. He appointed corrupt officials and surrounded himself with cronies, excluding traditional tribal leaders and denying them the standing and influence they felt their position deserved. This was a critical blunder. For the loyalties of the Afghan population were towards their tribal kinsmen rather than to any central government.
Added to this, Shah Shuja, re-emerging from years of exile spent in the comparatively cosmopolitan and liberal atmosphere of British India, bought with him a moral code that many Afghans found highly distasteful. The presence of a foreign army – and the debauchery that came with it – did little to help the situation. Of particular notoriety was the assistant envoy, now Sir Alexander Burnes, whose womanising and raucous behaviour were renowned throughout Kabul.
On the surface, Afghanistan appeared peaceful, and the British began to fulfil their promise of returning to India. The first troops went home before the year was out, leaving only 8,000 men to prop up the Shah. The presence of British troops in the city may not have been liked, but it was tolerated on the assumption that it was temporary.
The tide of opinion began to turn when Macnaghten allowed the British soldiers’ families to join them, in the hope of improving moral. To the local population, the message seemed clear: the British were to become a permanent fixture. In the British cantonment in Kabul, it was as if a small piece of British India had been transplanted to Afghan soil. Cocktail parties and dog shows were held in blissful ignorance of the forces stirring beyond the imperial enclave. For the mood of the Afghan people had become restless.


Between April and September 1840, the British suffered their first serious setback. The garrison at Kahan was besieged by disaffected rebels. Its supply-train was carried off, and a relief force beaten back. In September, with supplies exhausted, the garrison surrendered. As a mark of respect for their brave stand, the British were allowed to leave un-harassed with their weapons. This act of clemency would not be repeated.
The general election of 1841 saw a sea-change back in London, with the Conservatives displacing the Whigs. The incoming government was determined to cut expenditure on Afghanistan. Anglo-Indian troop numbers were to be drawn down. They were to be replaced with a doubling in number of Shah Shuja’s own Afghan forces. The amount of money paid in bribes to tribal chiefs, including the Ghilzais who controlled the route between Kabul and Jalalabad, was to be drastically reduced.
The effects were immediate: Sir Robert Sale’s brigade had to fight its way from Kabul to Jalalabad, losing 105 men. Then, on 2 November, an angry crowd gathered outside Alexander Burnes’ residence in Kabul, protesting against his decadent behaviour. He was killed along with his brother and a fellow officer as they tried to escape the scene in disguise.
British reaction to the killings was typical of the entire campaign. Major-General William Elphistone, who was now in command of military operations in Afghanistan, failed to act. The population, accustomed to swift and merciless reprisals, anxiously awaited the authorities’ response. Now was the moment to nip rebellion in the bud.
But nothing happened, and the fact that British envoys could be killed with impunity set a dangerous precedent. Two factors contributed to the lack of action. Firstly, as a commander, Elphistone was over the hill. He had served with great distinction at Waterloo, but that was a generation ago, and he was now old, in poor health, and tired of soldiering. Secondly, the small, isolated British force saw their role in Kabul as supportive or advisory, and they were keen to leave civil security to Shah Shujah, lest they appear as an occupying army. The two combined to create confusion and paralysis, with orders being issued and then repealed, resulting in nothing but a display of weakness. The failure of Shujah to suppress the unrest also showed him up as an ineffective ruler.
Having lost all credibility, the British forces now found themselves effectively under siege in their cantonment, with sporadic incoming fire from the surrounding hills. Negotiations began on 25 November with the bitter Afghan winter already setting in. Macnaghten’s demand that the British should not have dishonourable terms imposed upon them fell on deaf ears. The hawks in the Afghan court were now in the driving seat: buoyed up by a swelling insurgency, they had no need to grant concessions.
Just as it appeared negotiations were stalling, a message came form Akbar Khan, son of Dost Muhammad: in exchange for being made wazir (effectively ruler of the country), he would support the Shah, allow the British to remain outside Kabul, and round up some of the rebel leaders. MacNaghten jumped at the deal and, against advice, went out to meet Khan. It soon became clear that the deal was bait to draw the British representative into the open. He was surrounded and killed. His body was then dragged around the market before being dismembered and hung on the gates.

Retreat from Kabul

The situation was now dire. The British had no choice but to return to India. On 1 January 1842, the retreat from Kabul began. Some 4,500 soldiers with nine field guns, accompanied by around 12,000 camp-followers, began the slow march to safety.
From the start, what little order there was went awry. As pillaging Afghans moved into the emptying cantonment, panic ran through the straggling camp-followers, causing a stampede and the abandonment much of the stores.
From this point on, the chain of command was broken. It was every man for himself. The first day’s march took the column five miles before it made a disorganised camp for the night. Sunrise revealed the toll inflicted by the cold as frozen bodies were abandoned where they lay. As the march resumed, the column was harassed constantly by Afghan horsemen passing at will through the loose ranks. From the high ground, irregulars sniped at the British below with their long jezail rifles. The British, equipped with muskets designed for short-range volley fire, were unable to reply.
The column continued to the Tangi Tariki Pass, where the Ghilzais had blocked the road. Most of the column was annihilated by the raiders lying in wait. The rearguard was totally wiped out. Only Elphistone, his staff, 100 cavalrymen, less that half the 44th Foot, and handful of artillerymen made it through. Khan sent a message to Elphistone inviting him to his camp. Elphistone accepted, hoping to discuss terms, but on arrival found he was now the warlord’s prisoner.
Command devolved to Brigadier Anquetil who hoped to use the cover of darkness to slip by the waiting Ghilzais. He found his away again blocked, forcing the infantrymen to make a last desperate stand at Gandamak. Captain Soulter of the 44th was spared death only because he was mistaken for a great chief due to the fine attire he was wearing. He had in fact wrapped the silken regimental colour around himself to avoid it falling into enemy hands. All of his comrades perished.
One sole Briton made it to Jalalabad. Our portent of ill omen, Dr Brydon, approached the city on a dying horse, followed by a few sepoy stragglers, to tell the tale of the army’s destruction.


The myth of British invincibility had been shattered. In Kabul, on the other hand, Shah Shuja’s regime might have benefited from his ally’s defeat. With the foreign presence gone, one of the major causes of unrest was removed. Soon after, however, Shuja was assassinated. A scramble for power between rival factions followed. After much bloodshed, terms were reached: one of Shah Shuja’s sons would be placed on the throne with Akbar Khan as his wazir.
Desiring a swift end to the conflict, Ellenborough, who was now Govenor General of India, ordered a full withdrawal from Afghanistan after British military prestige had been restored by a battlefield victory. For this, two armies were sent into Afghanistan, under Generals Nott and Pollock. Akbar Khan met Pollock en route, but was defeated and forced to withdraw.
Ellenborough had at first been reluctant to see the generals advance as far as Kabul, but now he ordered them on, with the injunction that they should inflict just, but not vindictive, reprisals, and that they should reclaim British hostages and captured guns and colours. This Nott and Pollock did. The settlements of men suspected of being party to the uprising were attacked. In Kabul, the great market was destroyed as belated retaliation for Macnaghton’s killing. From Bamiyan, to which they had been transferred, the hostages were freed.
On the 12 October, satisfied that imperial prestige had been restored, the British left Kabul. With Shah Shuja’s successor unwilling to retake control, another of his sons was placed on the throne. It was not long, however, before Akhbar Khan had him removed, making room for his father, Dost Muhammad, to return from exile and retake his throne.
The British intervention had been a total disaster. The old regime, conservative and independent, had been restored, and both government and population inside Afghanistan were now resolutely anti-British.
The war had been a military and political failure. Could it have ended otherwise? From the start, the British backed the wrong man. The fact that Shah Shuja had already lost his throne once should have been proof enough that he was an unpopular, corrupt, and incompetent ruler.
A fundamental misunderstanding of the Afghan way of life entirely undermined the British strategy. Afghanistan was not India. It was not like the vast Mughal and Maratha empires, centralised autocracies that could be brought crashing down to total ruin in a single campaign. Only with the support of the local tribal chiefs could Afghanistan be ruled, support that the Shah and his foreign allies wholly failed to secure.
Once in Kabul, the British were unwilling to consolidate with strong support for the regime they had installed. Instead, the small force left in the city found itself without a clear-cut role: it was loathe to interfere with the Shah’s rule, yet it lacked the strength to crush any serious rebellion he might face. It was effective neither as consultant nor policeman.
Ineffective leadership by Elphistone and infighting among his staff led to a collapse of command and control, culminating in the panic and chaos of the final retreat.
It would be nearly 40 years before Britain would have the stomach to become involved again in Afghan affairs. As in 1839, it would be tensions with Russia and Kabul that would bring Anglo-Indian troops marching up the Khyber Pass. This Second Afghan War (1878-1880) will be the subject of the second article in our monthly mini-series on British military interventions in Afghanistan.


  1. To this day, it is regrettable that Sir Alexander Burnes is faulted for the disasterous consequences of Sir William H. Macnaughten & Lord Aukland’ s shortsighted policy regarding the 1838 invasion of Afghanistan to install Shah Shujah on the afghan throne.

    Sir Alexander Bunes’ advice was edited by Sir Claude Wade, the political agent in Ludianah, to suite the views of of Sir William & Lord Aukland in order to invade Afghanistan and dethrone Dost Mohammad with Shah Shujah.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.