After a forlorn, largely incompetent defence of Kabul, little more than a few Europeans and a few hundred sepoys and civilian followers survived the subsequent infamous mid-winter retreat by an estimated 16,000 to 16,500-strong British Army.
The battle can be divided into two key phases: firstly the insurrection and siege itself (2 November 1841–5 January 1842) during which British supplies, morale and fighting power slowly disintegrated and, secondly, the great disastrous eight-day retreat to Jalalabad (6–13 January) when a combination of terrible weather, terrain, incessant Afghan insurgent attacks and exhaustion of supplies finally destroyed the once-powerful Kabul Brigade.
On Wednesday 5 January 1842, a desperate Elphinstone gave his final, fateful command to commence the retreat and orders were issued to that effect ‘for 7 and 8 ‘o’ clock am’ on Thursday 6 January. Astonishingly Brig. Shelton, as second-in-command, had been one of the last to know – a testament perhaps to the degree to which he had been left isolated from the command cycle. He later claimed:‘I knew nothing of the arrangements for the retreat till they were published the night before’ (Kaye, History of the War, Vol. 2, p. 363).
When, at 8 a.m. the next day, he desperately tried to get permission from Elphinstone to release the gun carriages in order to make a foot bridge over the Kabul River for the infantry he ‘got offended for his trouble’ by the former who was ‘just sitting down to his breakfast’ (Kaye, History of the War, Vol. 2, p. 363). Not only was this a testament to the breakdown of personal relations between the two men but the construction was delayed until ‘past twelve’. It served to exacerbate what was already a militarily disastrous decision. In the words of Haigh: ‘to retreat through the frost and the snow was the most hazardous of all the measures adopted, the troops having to contend against the frost as well as the enemy’ and it was especially fatal to the less-protected and -acclimatised native troops, ‘who comprised five sixths of the force’. He tellingly added: ‘before the snow fell i.e. before the 18th of December a retreat was practicable’ (Haigh, A Review of Operations, p. 4).
After numerous delays Elpinstone finally orders the 90-mile retreat to Jalalabad to begin.
c. 9–9.30 a.m.: Retreat of the c. 16,500 British Anglo-Indian Army commences. In apparent breach of the treaty, the British rearguard is attacked as it evacuates the cantonment. The main column is also subjected to ferocious attacks from Afghan marauders and suffers numerous casualties (particularly camp followers) and huge losses of treasure, baggage, and vital tentage and food.
4 p.m.: Advance guard reaches first designated bivouac at Begram.
c. 2 a.m.: Weakened, exhausted rearguard staggers into Begram. During night first wave of mass desertion occurs (mainly Shah’s 6th and Hopkins Sepoy Corps)
British column moves off in chaos and enters Khurd-Kabul Pass. British lose control of heights. Extreme cold and mass insurgent attacks result in over 3,000 casualties and loss of many senior officers. First serious ammunition shortages occur. Capt. Skinner recommences negotiations with Akbar Khan. Majors Lawrence and Pottinger taken as hostages. Acute shortage of tentage.
c. 8 a.m.: Most troops move out without orders. European women, children and most of their husbands taken into protective custody. Mutinies and mass desertions markedly increase. European and sepoy regiments record crippling losses.
British column moves on to Tezin. Sepoys reduced to skeleton formations. Roll call reveals mainly European combat troops reduced to c. seventy 44th Foot, fifty Horse Artillery and around 150 cavalry. Renewed negotiations to secure safe passage/supplies.
Remainder of column reach Jagdalak via Kuttur Sung. Shelton’s severely diminished rearguard fights off insurgent attacks. Food crisis mounts.
Akbar Khan holds shura with fellow insurgent leaders but hard-line attitude taken. Final, largely fruitless negotiations take place and Elphinstone and Shelton are forcibly held hostage. Sepoy morale collapses and most remaining sepoys desert. Fearing treachery, remaining units resume evening/night march towards Jagdalak where heavy losses occur and discipline collapses in frantic attempt to cross insurgent barricades there.
Final day of retreat. Final skirmish at Sourkab. Final stand by fifty to sixty 44th Foot and remnants of other units on Gandamak Hill. A few British hostages taken including Capt. Souter and regimental colours. Dr Brydon is first European to reach Jalalabad safely.
Extracted from Battle Story: Kabul 1841-42 by Edmund Yorke