Saturday, August 21, 2010

Patrick Macrory - Signal Catastrophe: The Story of the Disastrous Retreat from Kabul 1842

The defeat of the British in Afghanistan in 1842 had far reaching implications. It caused shock at home - the political classes and the British population was used to seeing themselves as an invincible civilising force. The news of the disaster took several months to reach home, when it did, the information that around 17,000 soldiers and camp followers died, many in the most miserable of conditions was almost unbelievable. The defeat was a huge shock to those back home, yet it also had a effect of the millions of people living under British Rule - for once the British had been defeated and as Patrick Macrory says in his prologue, "the realisation that the British beaten was to smoulder in secret in many an Indian breast for another fifteen years until, with the Great Bengal Mutiny, it burst into angry flames".

Patrick Macrory's book isn't a history from below. Nor is it a particularly critical account of British Imperialism and the experience of colonialism. Macrory was very much an establishment historian, yet his work is an honest account of the reasons for the failure of the First Afghan War. The army that entered Kabul to prop up a British selected ruler was doing what the British had done many times before in India - the build up and support one side in an internal conflict, in order to rule by proxy.

Yet the truth was that Kabul wasn't in India. It's great distance from the larger British garrisons, the inhospitable terrain and the unpredictable weather were always going to make a military occupation difficult. The Afghan tribes were not the uncivilised people that the British imagined they were. Indeed, they had, through a series of wars with their neighbours build up a very well trained army. The British were also to learn the hard way, that European strategies and tactics didn't always fit.
The Afghan jezail, with its long rifled barrel, far out-ranged the British musket and was much more accurate.... More-over, the Afghans fought intelligently. Not for them the thing red line or the British square, standing in full view of the enemy weapons and firing from the upright position. They took advantage of natural cover and 'until they commenced firing not a man was known to be there.'.... They were 'marksmen who seldom missed their aim' and, what was more, 'they appeared to pick off the officers in particular'.
One soldier commented that "our infantry soldiers... might have taken a salutary lesson from the Afghans... our men seemed to fire entirely at random, without any aim at all".

Racist assumptions of European supremacy were not for the first time going to catch British military leaders out. But the drive into Afghanistan was one that was in many senses doomed to failure anyway. The particular tragedy of 1842, was that bureaucratic failings, stupid leadership (and I use the word deliberately) as well as tactical ineptitude accelerated the process so that at every stage the British made the worst possible choices. The victims weren't simply the soldiers. Alongside the regular troops were many Indian men whose "native" regiments were seen as secondary to the European troops. When the retreat came, these men, despite years of loyalty were literary left by the roadside, forgotten and ignored.

To encourage the idea that the British occupation would last for years, these men were encouraged to bring their families. Accounts of the retreat from Kabul, include several of European officers having slight twinges of regret at the sight of young Indian children freezing to death.

Interestingly, Macrory brings out another problem with British rule - aside from the colonial arrogance that they governed with, they seemed unable or unwilling to understand the needs of a garrison in Afghanistan. Not only did they take their fox hounds, but they carried little enough food. Barely surviving the march into Kabul, the garrison quickly made sure the officers had enough entertainment and good food brought in from India. Dining on fine wines and delicacies shipped from the British Isles, playing cricket and organising horse racing, Imperial arrogance must have rubbed Afghan people rapidly up the wrong way.

But the tactical stupidity is what really stands out. Readers who know little enough about siege warfare, will realise that storing all your food outside of the well defended garrison will mean problems in the event of any uprising. When the uprising starts, telling your troops to conserve ammunition despite having 12 months supply doesn't led to a demoralised enemy. Refusing to attempt to storm the well-stocked, easily defendable city a few miles away, and instead trying to march 20,000 through heavy snow over some of the most dangerous mountain routes in the world is insanity.

William Elphinestone, who commanded the Kabul garrison was on paper an ideal leader. He'd fought honourably at Waterloo yet was now a very ill, old man incapable of decisions. Much of the individual blame lies at his door, yet the appalling bureaucratic nature of the British Army meant that initiative from below was stifled.

Part of this was due to the class nature of the army. Its leaders acted as a minor aristocracy. Several of the wives of the British officers and their families were captured. Macrory describes the snobbery thus:
Eyre's wife, who had only one gown tried to borrow another from a lady who had trunks full, only to be rebuffed by the answer that she could not spare any. Mrs Eyre was also short of needles and persuaded Mackenzie to try to wheedle one or two out of Lady Sale... He never exercised greater diplomacy in his life, he said later, but he failed.
Such are the bonds of class that must rule even in the deepest dungeon. Interestingly, Mackenzie was so traumatised by this that for the rest of his life, he "could not resist picking up every needle or pin that he saw".

When news of the disaster reached India, and thence Britain, retribution was furious and swift. Kabul was recaptured from the rebels, and much of it was razed to the ground. The British didn't stay though, the Afghan people had stopped the permanent occupation.

It is of course impossible to read this book without noting the similarities with more recent events in Afghanistan. Then, as now, the occupying forces are unwanted by the majority of the Afghan people and they are finding that modern methods of fighting don't necessarily translate to the terrain that is being fought over. Problems of supply and unsuitable equipment once again raise their heads. Though I doubt that the current British garrison's have tried to bring a pack of fox hounds with them.

But at root there is the same problem today as there was in the 1840s. Then, Britain occupied out of fear of a Russian threat to India. They saw the rest of the world as a place to be used in the interests of British imperialism. After the war a more level headed member of the British establishment said that he had no "intention of making war for the sake of promoting the study of Adam Smith among the Afghans". Today, the occupation of Afghanistan too has little point other than the furthering the interests of a section of the US and British ruling classes.

The thousands of men and women who perished in the Afghan snows almost 170 years ago, would have recognised the stupidity of what is being done there today. Perhaps they would also be surprised that few, if any lessons seem to have been learnt.


For those interested in the Flashman novels, this work forms the basis for much of the story in the first in that series.

The book's more recent title is "Retreat from Kabul: The Catastrophic British Defeat in Afghanistan, 1842"

Related Review

Dalrymple - Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan


CyberKitten said...

Interesting... I'll add that to my Amazon Wish List.

Groggy Dundee said...

Excellent review, you convinced me to buy the book. I've always been interested in the Anglo-Afghan War and this book always gets singled out as the classic work. Peter Hopkirk and Flashman are my previous forays into this area.

As a trivia note, this book apparently has been published under four different titles. Besides the two mentioned here, it's also been titled The Fierce Pawns (my favorite) and the less-imaginative Kabul Catastrophe.

Anyway, I like your blog and I'll definitely keep an eye on it. Thanks again for the interesting review.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great review! As your description is so vivid, I feel as if I were witnessing those historical events. In addition your way of connecting the history of British imperialism to the recent events in Afghanistan is really thought-provoking! I always learn a lot by reading your reviews. Thank you.