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The First Afghan War, 1839-1842

 

 

The background to the conflict

The problems with Afghanistan began in 1837. With Russian backing, a Persian army besieged the city of Herat, the British government saw this as a threat to their interests in India, and began to fear a Russian invasion of the North-Western frontier of Afghanistan. In addition, Shah Shoojah, a former monarch of Afghanistan, had been exiled to India, plus Runjeet Singh, the Sikh leader and a firm ally of the British, had been attacked by the dominant Afghan chief Dost Mahomed Khan. This led to a tripartite agreement between the British, Shah Shoojah and Runjeet Singh, which aimed to return Shah Shoojah to the Afghan throne, thus making Afghanistan pro-British.


The town of Jellalabad, 1842

The conflict

A combined army of British and Indian forces, entitled the Army of the Indus, was assembled to attempt to place Shah Shoojah on the throne. The 13th Foot was selected to form part of the infantry forces and arrived at Ferozepore in India on 26 November 1838 to take its place in the army. It was decided that the army should not approach Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass, as it was a dangerous and unpredictable passage, instead the Army of the Indus marched across Baluchistan to pass through the Bolan Pass with the objective of Kandahar. In April 1839 the Army of Indus reached Kandahar; on their approach the leaders of Western Afghanistan fled or surrendered, thus leaving the entrance to the city open.

June 1839 saw the army moving towards Kabul. On route lay the fortress of Ghuznee which was duly stormed and seized by a party from the 13th led by Colonel Dennie. With the taking of Ghuznee, the passage to Kabul lay open and on the 6 August 1839 Shah Shoojah entered the capital to an unsettling silence. It appeared to all that the Army of Indus had achieved its goals.

The next year saw the continued occupation of Kabul, Kandahar and Ghuznee. However, tensions within the country were starting to develop. Shah Shoojah was not popular amongst the Afghan people and only held his position due to heavy British backing. All that was needed was a catalyst to cement the feeling of unrest. This catalyst was found in October 1841 and took the form of Akbar Khan, the favourite son of Dost Mahomed Khan, in addition communication lines to India were cut and there was growing friction between the British civil and military authorities.

The growing tensions came to a head in early October 1841. A small party from the 35th Native Infantry moved to the entrance of the Khoord Kabul Pass. This group was attacked and suffered heavy losses. In response the 13th, under command of Colonel Robert Sale, was sent out to join this group. The Khoord Kabul Pass was forced and the troops fought onto Gandamak, a cantonment garrisoned by Shah Shoojah's troops which lay 25 miles south-west of Jellalabad.


Colonel Robert Sale, Colonel of the
13th during the 1st Afghan War

 

Whilst at Gandamak Sale received news of an Afghan insurrection at Kabul and the overthrow of Shah Shoojah and the death of the British envoy to Afghanistan. With the sick and wounded it would have been impossible for Sale and the 13th to attempt a return to Kabul, it was thus decided to retire to Jellalabad. The arrival at Jellalabad found the fortress in ruins and the cantonments were burning. Ammunition and rations were short and the fort was soon surrounded by hostile Afghans. Meanwhile, the British forces in Kabul had capitulated, 17,000 Europeans were assured that they would receive safe passage from Afghanistan, however, once away from Kabul they were attacked, just one hundred survived to be taken prisoner and only one person, Dr. Brydon, reached Jellalabad alive.

 


The situation was ominous; Kabul had fallen and hostile forces surrounded the other garrisons, in addition communication links with India had become irregular and unreliable. The Afghans were also turning their attention to the destruction of Jellalabad. News of a relief force led by General Pollack was received, but just four days later an earthquake hit Jellalabad, destroying the newly defended walls. At the beginning of April 1842 the Jellalabad garrison received the disastrous (although incorrect) news that Pollack's force had been destroyed whilst crossing the Khyber Pass. This led Sale to make the decision to try to breakout from Jellalabad.

The day chosen was the 7 April, a day to be known throughout the regiment's history as Jellalabad Day. At daybreak the troops were awaiting the order for attack, the garrison were to attack in three columns with the 13th in the centre. The 13th came under attack from a small fort, which was duly attacked and the Afghans were pushed back before fleeing the scene. Just a week later General Pollack's forces reached Jellalabad and in the autumn of 1842 the remaining garrisons of the Army of the Indus again converged on Kabul. The prisoners held by the Afghans were released and by the 12 October 1842 the army was returning to India.

The repercussions for the regiment were vast; a twenty one-gun salute was fired at every principal Army station that was passed through on their return through India. In England, Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, sang the regiment's praises in the House of Commons and Queen Victoria re-titled the regiment the 13th or Prince Albert's Regiment of Light Infantry and changed the uniforms facings from yellow to Royal Blue. A special campaign medal, the first ever issued, was struck to be awarded to those who took part in the siege. Jellalabad was now to appear in a scroll at the top of the Regimental badge, along with a mural crown which was to refer to the fortress wall of Jellalabad and the initials PA for their new title. Three more battle honours were also added to the regimental colours: Ghuznee 1839, Afghanistan 1939 and Cabool 1842.

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