Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

The Khyber Pass

I am going to tell the story of the greatest disaster that ever happened to a British army.

In 1838-39 the Indian Government sent an army into Afghanistan. Its object was to restore a certain prince, Shah Soojah by name, who had been driven into exile nearly twenty years before. It hoped that he would be grateful for what had been done for him, and that the country which he ruled would be a valuable ally. Unfortunately, Shah Soojah was a feeble creature, and his people hated him because he had been put over them by foreigners.

For some time, however, everything was quiet, though there were some who suspected danger. But in 1841 some of the Afghan chiefs rebelled. They had been provoked by having the payment which had been made to keep them quiet reduced. What they did was to occupy the passes between Afghanistan and India. The most important of these was the Khyber Pass, of which I shall have more to say hereafter. A brigade which was returning to India was attacked on its way, and suffered no small loss, though it managed at last to get clear. The officer in command, General Sale, thought it best not to go further than the town of Jellalabad. This place, of which we shall hear again, he occupied and fortified.

Meanwhile a riot had broken out at Cabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and the envoy of the Indian Government was murdered. Very soon the whole city was in a state of revolt. The English force, which was considerable—four regiments of infantry and two of cavalry, with some other troops—was badly managed. Forts which might have been defended were given up, and other opportunities of attacking or resisting the enemy were lost. Elsewhere, also, great losses were suffered. One native regiment mutinied and murdered its officers; another was destroyed by the Afghans.

Then the civil officer, Macnaughten by name, to whom the generals had to look for orders, resolved to negotiate with the enemy. The Afghan chiefs made delay after delay, but at last, on December 11, they agreed to a treaty. Twelve days afterwards, when Macnaughten rode out from Cabul to have a conference with the chiefs, he was seized and murdered.

Still, even after this, the English officers went on negotiating. They thought that they could neither remain in Cabul nor force their way back to India, and that therefore nothing could be done but accept the terms which the enemy offered them. Briefly, these were that they were to evacuate the country, and, in consideration of this, were to be allowed to return unhurt, with their arms and property. On January 6, 1842, a bitterly cold day, with the snow lying deep on their road, all that was left of the British army, with the women and children that belonged to them, left the city. There were 4500 men in all, of whom 690 were Europeans, an army quite strong enough to hold its own even then, if it had been well commanded.

All the day was occupied in moving out, and from the first the enemy broke in the cruellest way the promises made by their chiefs that the British should be allowed to retreat in safety. The first day only six miles of march were accomplished. The army and its followers bivouacked in the snow, without fire, shelter, or food. Many soldiers and camp-followers, accustomed to the warmth of an Indian climate, perished of cold. During the night a part of the native troops deserted.

The next day, the march—if march it can be called—was resumed. The enemy still continued to plunder and kill. The soldiers had lost all heart, and made no resistance. They even allowed five out of their seven guns to fall into the hands of the Afghans. Another night even more miserable than the first followed. When the morning came, only a few hundred men were able to bear arms. In the course of the next day the women and children with the married officers were given over to the Afghan chiefs.

On the 10th the advance, consisting of what was left of the 44th Regiment (Europeans) and a few native cavalry, with one gun, had found their way through a narrow pass, in some places not more than ten feet wide, which lay in their way, and waited to be joined by the main body. But the main body had perished. Only a few stragglers survived to tell the story to those who, for the time, but only for the time, had escaped.

Khyber Pass


The Afghan commander now offered to take the remnant that was left safely to Jellalabad, if they would lay down their arms. The offer was rejected, and Brigadier Shelton, who was in command, proposed that they should make a night march to a place called Jugdulluk, which was about forty miles short of Jellalabad. The march was made, though not till after long delay, for the force had still a crowd of camp-followers with it, and could not move quickly. Jugdulluk was reached on the afternoon of the 11th, but no shelter was to be found here, and those still surviving had to march on again. The Afghans had put up across the road a barrier of prickly brushwood. This kept back the front rank from advancing; the rear was continually attacked by the savage enemy. The British soldiers made a brave defence. One officer, a captain in the 44th regiment, slew five Afghans before he fell. At last the brushwood barrier was broken down, and the few survivors—twenty officers and forty-five European soldiers—reached Gundamuk, a place half-way between Jugdulluk and Jellalabad. They took up their position on a little hillock. At first the Afghans charged them, trying to wrest their arms from them, but were beaten back. The enemy then retired to a distance, and fired, picking off man after man. When they had weakened it, as they thought, enough, they charged again—they greatly wished, you see, to have some prisoners—and at last overpowered the little band. One officer, who had wrapped the colours of the 44th round his waist, was carried off, and with him a few private soldiers who had been wounded.

Meanwhile the mounted officers had ridden forward. Of these five were killed on the way, two of them within four miles of Jellalabad. One survivor only, a doctor, Brydon by name, reached that town.

I must now relate what happened at Jellalabad. When Sale reached this town its fortifications were not capable of being defended. He had thirteen days to strengthen them, and his engineers made such good use of the time that when on November 29 the Afghans attacked it, they were driven off with heavy loss. About a month later came the news of what had happened at Cabul, and soon afterwards came a command from the General-in-Chief ordering Sale to give the place up, according to the terms of the agreement that had been made. Sale declared that he should not heed an agreement that had been made under fear of death, and that he should hold the place till the Government itself should order him to retire. Two or three days later came Dr. Brydon with the dreadful news that he was the sole survivor of the army that had marched a week before out of Cabul.

Sale himself was now shaken. A council of war was held, at which he declared that they could not hope to be relieved for a long time to come, and that his own opinion was to make terms. The Afghans offered a safe retreat to India, and he advised the council to accept the offer. Broadfoot, the engineer officer who had strengthened the defences, declared that such conduct would be neither safe nor honourable. They could hold Jellalabad, he said, as long as they wanted to. Another officer, Oldfield by name—I feel bound to mention these gallant men—exclaimed, "I will fight to the last drop of my blood, but I will never be a hostage, and I wonder that any one should regard an Afghan's word as worth anything." But the majority was the other way. Only these two voted for holding the town. But their example had its effect. The others soon recovered their courage, and it was resolved by all that they would hold on.

For nearly three months the siege went on. Then as the town was closely blockaded, supplies began to fall short, and Sale determined on making a sally. The Afghan general had about 5000 men, and the garrison marched out in three columns, one of them led by an officer who was to become famous afterwards, Henry Havelock, to attack him. In the end the Afghans were swept out of their position, lost all their guns, and had their camp set on fire. Jellalabad was now safe. A fortnight afterwards General Pollock arrived with a relieving force, which was played into its camp on the plain by the band of the 13th Regiment playing the tune of "'Oh! but ye've been lang o' coming!"

Five months afterwards the British army again entered Cabul. The great Bazaar, in which the heads of Burnes and Macnaughten had been paraded, was burnt, and the two places at which British regiments had been slaughtered were also destroyed. This done, the army returned to India.