First Anglo-Afghan War

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First Anglo-Afghan War
The Last Stand by William Barnes Wollen.  Heroic depiction of the defeat of the British troops at Gandamak
The Last Stand by William Barnes Wollen. Heroic depiction of the defeat of the British troops at Gandamak
date 1839 to 1842
place Afghanistan
output Victory of Afghanistan
consequences Complete annihilation of Elphinstone's army

British withdrawal from Afghanistan

Parties to the conflict

United Kingdom 1801United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland United Kingdom

Emirate of Afghanistan


John Keane
Willoughby Cotton
William Elphinstone
George Pollock
William Nott

Mohammed Akbar

Central Asia in the 19th century
British troops cross the Bolan Pass on their way to Afghanistan in 1839
Kabul and the British camp by James Rattray
Afghan soldiers around 1841

The First Anglo-Afghan War ( English First (Anglo) Afghan War ) from 1839 to 1842 was one of three military conflicts between the British Empire and Afghanistan between 1839 and 1919, the Anglo-Afghan Wars . The aim of these wars was to secure British supremacy in this area and to put a stop to the expansionist efforts of the Russian Empire . The Anglo-Russian competition in Central Asia in the 19th century is also known as The Great Game .


In 1837, the army of the Persian Shah Mohammed besieged the western Afghan city of Herat . She received unofficial support from the Russian Embassy in Tehran . The British artillery officer Eldred Pottinger , who was present in Herat, offered his services to the Emir of Herat. The defense was entrusted to him and it was possible to hold the city. At the same time, the Russian officer Vitkevich was on his way to meet Dost Mohammed , the ruler of Afghanistan. His company was part of the rapprochement between Afghanistan and Russia, which began in 1835. In Kabul he met the British officer and confidante Dost Mohammed Alexander Burnes . He was in Kabul on behalf of the British government to negotiate a contract. The core problem of these negotiations was the status of Peshawar , which had been conquered by Ranjit Singh , the ruler of Punjab . This enjoyed the British trust and was not willing to give up his claims. In this stalemate, the British Governor General of Calcutta , Baron Auckland , wrote a harsh letter to Dost Mohammed asking him to give up his claims to Peshawar and his rapprochement with Russia. As these demands were considered unacceptable, Burnes was expelled from Kabul. At the same time, the situation around Herat came to a head. In the meantime, the Russian ambassador, Count Simonitsch, had taken command of the Persian army. British troops then landed in the Persian Gulf . As a result, the Persian troops withdrew and both Simonitsch and Witkewitsch were ordered back to Russia.


The first conquest of Afghanistan

In order to solve the situation in Afghanistan once and for all, Lord Auckland decided to overthrow Dost Mohammed with the Shimla Manifesto of October 1, 1838 and to reinstate the former ruler Shah Shuja Durrani . To emphasize this demand, the Army of the Indus , a combination of troops from the British Army and troops from the British Indian Army , was sent to Afghanistan in December 1838 . Originally the army consisted of a contingent from the Bengal Presidency under Sir Harry Fane, consisting of two divisions under Willoughby Cotton and Major General Duncan, and a division under the Bombay Presidency under Sir John Keane .

  • Army of the Indus
    • Bengal Corps
      • 1st Division (Major General Willoughby Cotton)
      • 2nd Division (Major General Duncan)
        • 4th Infantry Brigade (Lieutenant Colonel Roberts)
        • 5th Infantry Brigade (Lieutenant Colonel Worsley)
      • Cavalry Brigade (Colonel Arnold)
      • Artillery (Lieutenant Colonel Graham)
    • Bombay Corps
      • 3rd Division (Lieutenant General Keane)
        • 1st Infantry Brigade (Colonel Wiltshire)
        • 2nd Infantry Brigade (Colonel Gordon)
      • Cavalry Brigade (Lieutenant Colonel Scott)

After the withdrawal of the Persians from Herat became known, the British reduced the force to Duncan's division. Fane then resigned from command. After the merging of the Cotton and Keane divisions on April 6, Keane took command of the entire force. The Army of the Indus marched with around 16,500 British and Indian troops, 6,000 Afghans under Shah Shudscha Durrani and around 35,000 servants and family members over the Bolan Pass . On April 25, 1839, they reached Kandahar , which fell without a fight. The next stop on the way to Kabul was the fortified city of Ghazni , which the British reached on July 21st. In the Battle of Ghazni on July 23, General Keane defeated an Afghan army under Hyder Khan there. The British army marched into Kabul on July 30th and took the city on August 7th without a fight.

Much of the Army of the Indus returned to India and Keane turned over command in Afghanistan to Willoughby Cotton. Auckland was promoted to Earl in December 1839 , with Keane baron and resident William Macnaghten Baronet . The British were able to maintain their position in the country and a. secure through financial support from tribal chiefs. The situation initially remained relatively calm and the British left the citadel of Bala Hissar in Kabul to move into new quarters around 1.5 km outside the city. On November 23, 1840, Dost Mohammed surrendered to the British. William Macnaghten sent him into exile in India .

In the spring of 1841, Cotton was replaced by Major General Elphinstone . This reached Kabul in April and stayed there with a division. General Sir William Nott commanded the entire Sindh area and southern Afghanistan . He had his headquarters in Kandahar since January 1841 .

Revolt against the British occupation

In August 1841, Robert Peel was tasked with forming a Tory government . The new government reduced the payments to the Afghan tribal leaders and withdrew their support for the British occupation. In the course of 1841 the unrest increased, fueled by tax increases by King Shah Shuja and the dissolute life of some British officers, especially Alexander Burnes.

On October 9, 1841, soldiers of the 35th Native Infantry under Colonel Monteath were attacked at the Khoord Kabul Pass. Thereupon a brigade under Colonel Robert Henry Sale , consisting mainly of the 13th Regiment of Foot , was moved to Jalalabad to strengthen Monteath and secure the route to India. Afghan militants attacked British outposts and in Kabul a crowd gathered in front of Burnes' house on November 2, 1841. He was discovered and killed during an attempt to escape. The British garrison failed to come to his aid and the local troops fled the angry crowd. The inaction of the British led to a general uprising and the siege of the British garrison. On November 23, 1841, the British made a sortie to destroy two Afghan guns. In a subsequent attack on a nearby settlement, they suffered heavy losses and withdrew. The arrival of Mohammed Akbar , a son of Dost Mohammed, with 6,000 men in Kabul worsened the situation. In the meantime, around 30,000 Afghan fighters faced around 4,500 British-Indian troops.

On December 23, 1841, after negotiations, Macnaghten and Akbar met on the Kabul River , in which Macnaghten was killed. Again the British commander Elphinstone did not react. Eldred Pottinger now became the British negotiator and accepted the surrender . He only succeeded in ensuring that not the families of some officers, but these themselves remained as hostages in Kabul. He was also promised an escort for protection.

Elphinstones retreat

Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler - William Brydon, the sole survivor of 15,500 civilians and soldiers, reaches Jalalabad

On January 6, 1842, the retreat of the British garrison began under Major General Elphinstone. The goal was to reach the next garrison in Jalalabad, about 140 km away. The train consisted of approximately 12,000 civilians, 690 British and 2,840 Indian soldiers. They were attacked as soon as they left the garrison. The attacks continue and the promised escort did not appear. On the way there were several negotiations with Akbar and more hostages were left behind, among them Pottinger, Lady Sale, the wife of Robert Sale, and on January 11th even Elphinstone himself. On January 8th, 1842 the entourage was attacked while crossing a pass and about 3,000 men, women and children fell. Four days later, around 2,300 people were still alive. The survivors now tried to break through to Jalalabad, but were decimated in ever new attacks. The last British survivors - twenty officers and forty-five soldiers, mostly from the 44th East Essex Regiment - were killed or captured at the Battle of Gandamak on the morning of January 13th . The British military doctor William Brydon was the only European from Elphinstone's platoon to break through to Jalalabad on the afternoon of January 13th. A few days earlier he and 12 officers had separated from the main army.

The second conquest of Afghanistan

Lady Sale at Richard Thomas Bott's retreat from Kabul

On February 28, Lord Auckland was replaced by Edward Law, 1st Earl of Ellenborough . In response to the defeat in winter, a punitive expedition was put together at Peshawar under Major General George Pollock . This marched on April 5th over the Chaiber Pass . In the meantime, General Sale had withstood the siege of Jalalabad by 5,000 Afghans with 1,500 men since November 12, 1841 . On February 19, an earthquake destroyed the defenses of Jalalabad. After Sale received the false news of the destruction of Pollock's army, he decided to launch a sortie. Through this he was able to drive out the besiegers on April 7th. The commander of the 13th Regiment of Foot William H. Dennie fell. A week later, Pollock arrived in Jalalabad.

After the relief of Jalalabad on April 13, 1842, Pollocks and Sales troops marched on Kabul. There Akbar had meanwhile lured Shah Shuja Durrani out of the citadel of Bala Hissar and murdered him. The hostages were transferred to Bamiyan . When Akbar fled Kabul, he wanted to have the hostages brought to Bukhara , which was unsuccessful due to a lack of support.

In the critical winter of 1841/42, Nott had held the Kandahar garrison, which was besieged by the Afghans, and with two casualties in January and March 1841 put the besiegers to flight. When he received the order in July 1842 to withdraw from Kandahar and to withdraw from Afghanistan with his 5,000-strong troops, he marched in a free interpretation of the unclearly formulated order via Khelat-i-Gilzie in the direction of Ghazni , where he died on August 30, 1842 who crushed Afghans under the command of Shamsedin Khan, who were more than twice superior in number. After conquering and destroying the city and its citadel in early September, he continued his march to Kabul , where his troops united with those of Pollock on September 17th.

The hostages from Elphinstone's army had now ransomed. After the capture of Kabul on September 15 and the enthronement of Shah Shuja's son, she was saved. Elphinstone himself was now dead. However, Pottinger had survived with 58 men, 19 women - including Lady Sale - and 22 children. As a punishment for Kabul, General Pollock ordered the demolition of the citadel and the bazaar. During those two days Kabul was sacked by the troops.


On October 11, 1842, troops from Kabul and, subsequently, Afghanistan withdrew completely to India after the British East India Company concluded that the continued occupation was too risky and costly. Dost Mohammed returned to the throne and ruled until his death in 1863.

From 1878 to 1880 there was another war between Afghanistan and the British Empire, the Second Anglo-Afghan War .

The First Anglo-Afghan War in Art


  • William Dalrymple : Return of a King. The Battle for Afghanistan. Bloomsbury, London et al. 2013, ISBN 978-1-408-82287-6 .
  • Saul David : The greatest failures in military history. From the battle in the Teutoburg Forest to Operation Desert Storm (= Heyne 19, Heyne-Sachbuch 833). Heyne, Munich 2003, ISBN 3-453-86127-2 (deals with the withdrawal from Kabul in 1842).
  • John Duncan, John Walton: Heroes for Victoria 1837-1901. Queen Victoria's Fighting Forces. Spellmount, Speldhurst 1991, ISBN 0-946771-38-3 .
  • Archibald Forbes: Britain in Afghanistan. Volume 1: The First Afghan War 1839-42 (= Regiments & Campaigns. Vol. 20). Leonaur, sl 2007, ISBN 978-1-84677-304-4 .
  • Philip J. Haythornthwaite: The Colonial Wars Source Book. Arms and Armor Press, London 1995, ISBN 1-85409-436-X .
  • Patrick Macrory: Retreat from Kabul. The catastrophic british defeat in Afghanistan, 1842. Lyons Press, Guilford CT 2002, ISBN 1-59921-177-7 .
  • Karl E. Meyer, Shareen Blair Brysac: Tournament of shadows. The great game and the race for empire in central asia. Counterpoint, Washington DC 1999, ISBN 1-58243-028-4 .
  • Hermann Oncken : The security of India. A century of English world politics. Grote, Berlin 1937 (from 1815 to 1914).
  • André Singer: Lords of the Kyber. The story of the North-West Frontier. Faber and Faber, London et al. 1984, ISBN 0-571-11796-1 .
  • George Robert Gleig: Sale's Brigade in Afghanistan , London 1846

Web links

Commons : First Anglo-Afghan War  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. George Childs Kohn: Dictionary of Wars. Revised Edition . Routledge, London / New York 2013, ISBN 9781135954949 , p. 5.
  2. ^ Martin Ewans: Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics . HarperCollins, 2002, ISBN 0060505087 , p.  70 .
  3. George Robert Gleig: Sale's Brigade in Afghanistan. P. 25.
  4. ^ Forbes: Britain in Afghanistan. Volume 1: The First Afghan War 1839-42. 2007, p. 66 ff.
  5. ^ Forbes: Britain in Afghanistan. Volume 1: The First Afghan War 1839-42. 2007, p. 133 ff.