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Chapter LV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 4


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Notwithstanding all this treachery and barbarity, General Elphinstone, feeling his situation desperate, was weak enough to trust the Afghan chiefs, and to enter into a convention with them, in the hope of saving the garrison from destruction. The negotiations were carried on by Major Pottinger, and it was agreed that the former treaty should remain in force, with the following additional terms: - That the British should leave behind all their guns excepting six; that they should immediately give up all their treasures; and that hostages should be exchanged for married men with their wives and families. To this, however, the married men refused to consent, and it was not insisted on.

In pursuance of this convention the garrison retired, and commenced their fatal march on the 6th of January, 1842. The army consisted of 4,500 fighting men, with 12,000 camp followers, besides women and children. The snow lay deep upon the ground; they had scarcely commenced their march when they were attacked by the Afghans, the guns were captured, and they were obliged to fight their way, sword in hand, defending the women and children as well as they could. During the whole way through the snow, the road was strewed with bodies and stained with blood. The dead and dying were immediately stripped naked by the enemy, and their corpses hacked to pieces with long knives. During all this time the perfidious Akbar Khan sent messages, professing his regret at not being able to restrain the Ghilzye tribe; and after they had got through the pass, he made a proposal, which was accepted, to take the ladies under his protection. Accordingly, Lady Sale and Lady Macnaghten, with six others, accompanied by their husbands, were left under his charge. The British troops then halted for a day, bivouacking on the snow. The cold was so intense that the Sepoys became benumbed and paralysed, in which state the whole of them were next day attacked and cut to pieces. The Europeans managed to hold together, but when they arrived at Jugdulluck, thirty-five miles distant from Cabul, only 300 out of 16,500 persons who left that city remained alive. At this place a halt was ordered, and through the interference of Akbar Khan, the miserable remnant were permitted to occupy a ruined enclosure, where, worn out by fatigue and utterly helpless, they lay down to rest in the snow. General Elphinstone was detained a prisoner by Akbar Khan in a small fort, whence he dispatched a note to Brigadier Ankitel, advising him to march that night, as there was treachery a-foot. The wearied band, aroused from their slumbers, accordingly moved on in the dark; but their departure was noticed, they were attacked in the rear, they broke into disorder, threatened to shoot their officers, separated in small parties, and thus, scattered and confused, they were cut down almost to a man. Of the officers, however, a considerable number escaped on horseback; but they, too, were attacked wherever they appeared, until, as we have already mentioned, only one gentleman, Dr. Brydon, survived to tell the dreadful story, reaching Jelalabad on the 13th of January. It afterwards transpired, however, that several other officers were detained in captivity.

So perished the last remnant of the army of the Indus. Mr. Kaye has the following reflections upon this retreat, one of the most disastrous recorded in history: - " It was not a human enemy alone with which those miserable men had to contend. It was theirs to war against a climate more perilous in its hostility than the inexorable foe. But neither the cruel cold, nor the malignant Afghans would have consigned the British army to destruction, if the curse which had so long brooded over the councils of our military chiefs, and turned everything into folly and imbecility, had not followed them on their exit from the Cabul. cantonments, and crowned the catalogue of disaster and disgrace. It is probable that, if greater energy had been exhibited at the commencement of the retreat - if nothing had been thought of but the best means of accomplishing the march through the snow with the utmost possible rapidity - a large portion of the forest would have been saved. But the delays which were suffered to arise at the commencement of the retreat sealed the fate of the army. They threw the game into the hands of the enemy. We waited, indeed, whilst the gates were being closed upon us, and then there was no outlet of escape. Whilst our wretched people were halting and perishing in the snow, the enemy were gathering in advance of them, and lining the passes, intent on their destruction. The events of that miserable week in January afforded a fitting climax to the series of disasters which had darkened the two preceding months. There is nothing, indeed, more remarkable in the history of the world than the awful completeness, the sublime unity, of this Cabul tragedy."

Lord Auckland was then Governor-General of India, but the period of his tenure of office was drawing to a close. He hoped it would end brightly, that the war for the restoration of an imbecile and puppet king would have ended triumphantly, and that he would return to his native land bearing something of the reflected glory of the conquerers of Afghanistan. He had been cheered by the dispatches of the too sanguine envoy in the month of October, who spoke only of the continued tranquillity of Cabul. November passed, however, without any intelligence, and all was anxiety and painful suspense. Intelligence at last came confirming the worst anticipations. Calcutta was astounded at the news that Afghanistan, believed to be prosperous and grateful for British intervention, was in arms against its deliverers. Suddenly the tranquillity of that doomed country was found to be a delusion. " Across the whole length and breadth of the land the history of that gigantic lie was written in characters of blood." Confounded and paralysed by the tidings of so great a failure, which he had not energy to retrieve, he thought only of abandoning the vicious policy of aggression which had ended so miserably, and given such a terrible blow to the prestige of British power in India, on which our dominion in the East so much depended. He had owed his appointment to the Whigs; and the Conservatives, who were now in office, had opposed the policy of the Government regarding the Afghan war. But no one seemed more sick of the policy of aggression than the Governor-General himself. He became thoroughly convinced of the folly of placing a detached force in a distant city, which could be reached only through dangerous defiles, occupied by an ever-watchful enemy, depending for supplies upon uncertain allies, and without any basis of operations. The expedition had proved enormously expensive, and had drained the Indian treasury of funds which should have been employed in developing the resources of our Indian possessions. When all this had ended in disastrous failure and national disgrace - when he recollected that the directors of the Company, as well as the Government, had expressed intense dissatisfaction at his policy, feeling conscious that their complaints were just, and that their worst forebodings had been realised, his spirit seems to have been completely broken; instead of any attempt at retrieving the misfortunes of his Government, he thought only of saving, if possible, what remained of the forces that he had sent across the Indus. Writing to the Commander-in-chief, Sir Jaspar Nicolls, who was then on a tour through the Upper Provinces of India, with reference to the sending forward of reinforcements, he said he did not see how the sending forward of a brigade could by possibility have any influence on the events which it was supposed were then passing at Cabul, which they could not reach before April. In his opinion they were not to think of marching fresh armies to the re-conquest of that which they were likely to lose. He feared that safety to the force at Cabul could only come from itself. Writing to Sir W. Macnaghten, he said, "I would have you share in the feeling which is growing strongly upon me, that the maintenance of the position which we have attempted to establish in Afghanistan is no longer to be looked for. It will be for you and for this Government to consider in what manner all that belongs to India can be most immediately and most honourably withdrawn from the country." The Commander-in-chief himself had been always of opinion that the renewed efforts of the Govern- ment to support Shah Sujah on his throne, and to establish a permanent influence in Afghanistan, was a great mistake. However, owing to the energy of Mr. George Clarke, the Governor-General's agent on the north-west frontier, and his assistant, Captain, afterwards Sir Henry Lawrence, forces were dispatched from that quarter, under the command of General Pollock, who had commanded the garrison of Agra, having been in the Indian service since 1803, and having distinguished himself under General Lake. This appointment gave the greatest satisfaction, as it was believed that he was selected solely for his merit, and not through aristocratic influence. It was certainly one of the best appointments that could have been made, as no officer in India possessed in a higher degree the qualifications necessary for the command of the expedition at a moment so critical, when our power in India was in jeopardy, and a further continuance of disaster might have too severely tried the fidelity of our native troops on this side of the Indus.

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Pictures for Chapter LV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 4

Daniel Webster
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Sir Robert Sale
Sir Robert Sale >>>>

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