Arts, Culture & Media

Afghanistan: How Britain's First Intervention Ended in Disaster

One of Afghanistan's nicknames is "the graveyard of empires".

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A new book highlights Britain's first attempt to intervene in that country, to protect its valuable possessions in India.

The book is called "The Dark Defile: Britain's Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842"³, and, as you can tell, it did not end well for Britain.

Modern readers may find it interesting how some of the issues that faced the Brits back then have parallels today.

Author Diana Preston explains how after a relatively easy and successful initial invasion, beginning in 1838, a new more friendly regime was installed.

But the new regime struggled to win popularity; it was seen as dependent on foreign military power; its corruption alienated many; its armed forces were weak, and of dubious loyalty; and it was unable to manage complex tribal relationships.

The Afghans rebelled and forced the British to retreat from Kabul in mid-winter. Despite promises of safe passage, the army was massacred, along with all the support staff and even the soldiers' wives and children. More than 16,000 perished in the 'dark defiles' on the road back to India.

Only one British man survived the disaster and escaped, Doctor William Brydon,
The British returned to Kabul in the summer of 1842 to exact retribution. They burned Kabul's Grand Bazaar then abandoned Afghanistan to its fate.

Afghans still remember the war with a mixture of pride and anger, Preston says, as the first in a long series of failed attempts by foreign super-powers to dominate their country.

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    "The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, 1842" by William Barnes Wollen (1898) - (Photo: Wiki Commons)

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    "Remnants of an Army" by Elizabeth Butler (1879), portraying Doctor William Brydon arriving at Jalalabad as the only British survivor of the evacuation from Kabul in January 1842 (Photo: Wiki Commons)

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    "The Dark Defile: Britain's Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842", by Diana Preston. (Photo: Walker Press)