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Following the inevitable insurgency the British commander, General Elphinstone, tried to negotiate with the Afghans. The Afghans offered him safe passage, provided the British handed over their heavy weapons and retreated immediately to India. This would be British surrender, the ultimate defeat.

General Elphinstone
General Elphinstone

It must have felt like an impossible decision. If the garrison tried to stay, they could starve and be wiped out. But if they were to retreat, could they really trust the assurances of their enemy?

British Surrender

I faced a similar dilemma on a smaller scale when I was a deputy governor in the south of Iraq after the invasion in 2004. Our compound was under siege. We were being attacked by Sadarist militia, and their commander came to us and said that if we agreed to leave their weapons and hand ourselves over to him, he would take this safely out of the fort and the back. At the time I thought it was a trick, a trick to massacre us, and I felt, again, the same thing when I read this history.

Jaws of Hell
Jaws of Hell

In Iraq, we stayed and defended the compound, but the British in trouble, in 1841, were deeply divided. Many young officers were determined to fight on, but Elphinstone overruled them and ordered a retreat. All the troops, their wives and children, were forced to leave the relative safety of their compound, and to try and reach the British garrison in Jalalabad nine days march East of Kabul.

They made painfully slow progress and after two days, this straggling column of soldiers and civilians met their fate beneath this mountain.

Jaws of Hell

This valley is the Jaws of Hell. Into this, in midwinter, the cream of the British army marched and they were treated as though they were in a slaughterhouse. By the time they reached this valley, Khord Kabul, they had spent two nights out in the open three-foot snow in temperatures of minus 15 without tents, waking up to discover frozen corpses around them. They staggered into this valley, starving, frozen, with no supplies, and 80 miles to go, and it was at that point that the attack began.

Behind every boulder was an Afghan with a Musket taking careful aim, able to pick off, individually, 3000 people and kill them as they made their way through the valley. And it continued, not just for one or 2 miles, but for 5 miles of a ravine. By the time they reach the end of that valley, 90% of the British Army had been extinguished.

Few Survivors
Few Survivors

A handful of soldiers managed to fight their way through, but only to meet their fate later.

William Dalrymple “What we’ve got here is a last stand of the 44th foot at Gandamak. 50 men make it to the village of Gandamak. A stand on this low hill and they have run out of ammunition, they’re relying only on their bayonets. And the picture we see here is half of them are dead and the Pathans are about to close in and ended with their swords”. The subsequent British surrender was utterly inevitable.

Of the 17,000 men, women and children who set out nine days earlier from Kabul, only one made it to the British garrison in Jalalabad. One man has made it on from there, he is Dr Brydon.

William Dalrymple on the British Surrender

William Dalrymple “In this picture, Dr Brydon is sitting on his old nag. About to collapse and he is seen limping towards Jalalabad. And we assume he is only the first of thousands of troops to make it. And the gates opened and a party was sent out. Realising the truth, that night, the commanding officer orders the bugles to be sounded all night.”. This was the sound of the British surrender.

William Dalrymple talks about the british surrender
William Dalrymple

The British Empire never had, and never would, experience a defeat like it.

William Dalrymple “The first Afghan war was a major event for the Afghans. We always see it from our perspective as a great imperial disaster. But for the Afghans, this was their Trafalgar, their Battle of Britain, their Waterloo, all in one. They were the only non-colonial power to see off a modern westernised Army in the 19th century, On the sort of magnificent scale that they did, and completely destroyed an entire Victorian Army at the very peak of Britain’s power..

Jihad Booty at the british surrender
Jihad Booty

For Afghans, this has confirmed that they were a warrior nation. One even capable of seeing off a great power like Britain. But Western historians point to another legacy that resonates today.

Professor Thomas Barfield “The first time there is really a feeling of jihad inside Afghanistan is the first Anglo-Afghan war. After that, it never really goes away. Beginning with the British invasions, Afghans begin to perceive themselves as fighting an outside non-Muslim world. Now, they had known this before. When they raided India, that was jihad, you know. You got to go into infidel lands and take home a lot of good stuff. But inside Afghanistan, you couldn’t do jihad. Now when these foreigners invaded, people would say, yes, we’re fighting non-Muslims.”

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British Surrender in Afghanistan the Jaws of Hell