Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Revenge - Afghanistan 1842

In previous posts, through the writings of Murray authors Alexander Burnes and Lady Sale, I've explored first hand accounts of the outbreak and disasters of the First Afghan War. A third author, Reverend George Glieg, takes the story a little further. The Empire wasn't simply going to lick it's wounds. No. There had to be a response to the humiliation of British Arms.

Abandoned now was any pretext of bringing civilization and order, abandoned now was any talk of countering Russian infiltration of British India. The second British army to invade Afghanistan had no intention of staying, no ambitions towards regime change.

On the 15th of April, two and a half months after Dr Bryden rode half dead into Jallalabad, General Pollock, arriving from India with reinforcements, launched a punitive attack on Kabul in August with two infantry regiments and two squadrons of cavalry. This wasn't politics, this was revenge - shock and awe.

Reverend Glieg was with them:

"And very harrowing to the feelings of the soldiers was this long march. The narrow path by which they moved was strewn with the remains of Elphinstone's army. One upon another lay the dead; some of them reduced to skeletons, some with the features so entire that by many of their old acquaintances they were recognised. Flocks of vultures wheeled over the heads of the living and seemed to claim the dead as their own; while the smell that arose, especially on the night air, was dreadful. Our gallant fellows looked upon the scene of slaughter, and wished for revenge; and they never suffered an opportunity of gratifying the desire to pass unimproved."

He goes on

"The enemy fought with great desperation, standing till but a few paces divided them from our troops, and gave way even then only when the fixed bayonets gleamed before them, and they heard the shout wherewith the British Infantry invariably preface a charge. Then might be seen a flight and a pursuit, the one winged by terror, the other animated to perseverance by a burning thirst of revenge. The 3rd Light Dragoons were set loose upon the fugitives. They soon overtook them, and hewed, left and right, as men do who have the deaths of their friends and comrades to atone for; and the whole summit of the hill, as well as the slope beyond it, and the road, and the declivities leading down to it, were strewed with the bodies of the slain."

"They did not leave a house standing in Istaliff...fire consumed both cottage and castle..gardens, vineyards and orchards were all cut down."

Next priority was the release of the British hostages, including Lady Sale, still assiduously writng in her journal. Again, I can't be alone in recognizing the "human interest" aspect of the campaign, and its esstially emotional character. Glieg tells the story like this

"Akbar Khan had retreated with the wreck of his army towards the Hindoo Kush...one of his followers, Salee Mohammed by name, (incapable of withstanding the influence of money) had been won over to betray his post, and was actually moving towards Cabul with the whole of the British prisoners...when told at length that Lady Sale was safe, and that she and his widowed daughter Mrs Sturt, were on their way to rejoin him (General Sale) , there arose a shout, which the men of the regiment soon took up."

And when the hostages were restored, it was time to get out, leaving nothing but bad momories behind.

"Having thus re-established the prestige of British Invincibility, Pollock made ready to return to India. A son of Shah Shujah, Futteh Jung by name, proclaimed himself King. Few men of any note rallied to him, and the young man was made to understand that he need not look to the Ferighees (the British) for the support which his own countrymen witheld from him. Having settled these poiunts, General Pollock gave directions for inflicting on the guilty capital the punishment which it deserved.

With natural vanity, Akbar Khan had built a mosque to commemorate the destruction of Elphinstone's force, which he gave the name of the Feringhee Mosque, and which his flatterers affected to regard as one of the wonders of the world. It was levelled to the ground; and then followed the blowing up of the bazaars, the burning of chief's houses, the destruction of the city gates, and last of all, a conflagration...

On 12th october, the army began it's march towards the (Indian) provinces. Till the mountains of Bootak shut it from them, the soldiers of Sale's brigade saw the whole face of the sky red with the flames which they had contributed to raise."

Coming up, a consideration of these memories, and reflections on what they might mean for our current entanglements