May 28, 2012

Retreat From Kabul

In 1842, the British, as usual, found themselves in yet another country.  Who knows? At the time maybe it seemed like a good idea. The British were increasingly concerned about a Russian influence in Afghanistan.  After a changing of leadership, they decided to impose their presence.  Settling in the area with relative ease.  So much so that Kabul was home to 16,000+ foreigners.  They quickly made it their home with Victorian era plays and entertainment in the evening.  The locals were a little pissed to say the least.

Back in the UK, the Government started to get a little tired of supplying the effort of occupation.  So they began to cut back on the non-essential troops. Over time the presence of the British army became less and less intimidating, especially in smaller villages outside of Kabul.  This gave rise to a man named Akbar Khan who rallied the locals and formed a sizeable revolt.  The British troops noticed what was going on and informed their new leader William Elphinstone.   Elphinstone was older and reluctant to take the post.

One day the emboldened locals ransacked a British officials home killing him and his whole family.  When news of the attack arrived,  the British troops were upset and ready for a fight.  What amazed them was that Elphinstone did nothing.  The locals continued a series of small skirmishes before deciding to attack Kabul where the Brits were. Using a few Jezails (long range rifle) from a hill top overlooking Kabul they began taking out British troops. Elphinstone realizing that he finally had to do something sent a group of troops to take care of the situation.  Of all of the troops he sent, none made it back. 

With no other option available to them, Elphinstone sent a request for assistance. But help never came.  A snow filled path made getting help impossible.  So he decided to send delegates to the Afghans to discuss a possible withdrawal from Kabul.  As soon as the delegates arrived, they were pulled them from their horses and killed.  Elphinstone tried again to negotiate a withdrawal.  This time he was successful.  Khan promised them a safe, escorted passage to another British base 90 miles away in exchange for guns and ammunition.
On January 6, a group of 16,500 British citizens left Kabul.  This group was made up of more than just soldiers. It included women, children and tradesman.   As soon as the last troops left Kabul, the Afghan locals began to open fire at the rear guard.  Besides being attacked, Elphinstone realized that the promised escort was never going to materialize.  One man pleaded with Elphinstone to return to Bala Hissar, a fortress close by on a ridge, but he told his people to move on and that they would not return.  Right then Elphinstone had sealed their fate.

Elphinstone tried once again to secure safe passage from Khan.​   In exchange for yet another escort, Elphinstone gave away even more weapons.  The British troops, under Elphintone, were at this point demoralized and without decent weapons.  The further they march the more their numbers continued to shrink.  Snipersfrom different tribes, various raids, the cold weather, and suicide began to take its toll.  Eventually Elphinstone just stopped giving orders and sat motionless on his horse.  With many of their party dead or dying, Elphinstone and his senior officer surrendered themselves to the Afghans.

On January 12, having traveled only 35 miles, the remaining 200 soldiers and 2000 British citizens found themselves standing before an impassable line of Afghan troops.  Under the leadership of Brigadier Thomas Anquetil, they fought back valiantly despite being outnumbered.​  A small group of about 65 soldiers managed to push through the enemy lines only to find themselves trapped on a snowy hill surrounded by tribesmen.  There they stood, the last of the 16,000 people who had left  just days before, armed with only 20 muskets and 40 shots.  

The Afghan tribesmen called out to the remaining soldiers promising that if they surrendered they would live.  But what had the Afghan locals done to ever make the British soldiers think that they would keep their word.   From up on the small snow covered hill a voice yelled out, “NOT BLOODY LIKELY.”  At that moment their self respect, pride and passion were greater than the immediate concern for their lives.  They cared about something greater than saving their own skin.  They had made their last stand.  The British muskets began to fire and the men lost their lives.  But not without making their opponents shake in their boots.  That hill near Gandamak was quickly overrun with Afghan tribesmen and became the final resting place for those brave few.  Heroes who would not surrender.

I thought to myself the other day, "Why do we love men and women who give it all and stand toe to toe with the world?".  Is it their courage...their ability to see things differently?  But I think, for some of these heroes, it is their defiant attitude that makes them step out of the crowd and choose to think differently.  To say, "I know what you think...but I will defy you!"

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