It was all about the Russians
- The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan 1838-42 by Diana Preston
Walker, 307 pp, £21.00, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 8027 7982 3
There is nothing novel about British forces being involved in Afghanistan. Britain was deeply concerned with Afghanistan from the early 19th century right up until the moment it relinquished its empire in India in 1947, and at times actively engaged in its affairs. Diana Preston’s book focuses on one particular episode, the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1838-42. She shows how the expansion of the tsarist empire into Central Asia frightened the British administration in Calcutta into believing that the Russian advance might threaten the security of its Indian empire. After failing to gain the support of the emir, Dost Muhammad, the British decided to occupy Afghanistan, and in 1839 a force of British and Indian troops arrived in Kabul. In 1842 the Afghans succeeded in driving out the garrison and almost the entire force – 3800 Indian sepoys, 700 British soldiers and 12,000 camp followers – perished during the retreat to the Jugdulluk Pass. A little more than a generation later Britain tried once more to conquer Afghanistan. The last independent state in Central Asia, the Khanate of Khiva, fell to the Russians in 1873, and in 1878 a Russian envoy arrived in Kabul. Alarmed, the British launched a second invasion in 1878. The outcome was yet another military defeat: the Afghans destroyed most of a brigade of the British-Indian army at the battle of Maiwand in July 1880.
Vol. 34 No. 9 · 10 May 2012
David French compares the battles of Isandhlwana (1879) and Maiwand (1880), where the British were worsted by the Zulus and Afghan tribesmen respectively (LRB, 5 April). As he says, these triumphs over modern armies caused a sensation, though neither of them quite as much as the similar defeat of Western arms at the Battle of Little Bighorn a few years earlier (1876). The key to these defeats lay in the parity of military technology. Custer’s men had single shot Springfield 73 rifles; Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull’s men had Winchester repeater rifles. At Isandhlwana (and probably Maiwand) the British had Martini-Henry single-shot rifles. The Zulus had some of these too, but the short stabbing spear, used by highly disciplined units, was a match for rifles that continually needed reloading. All such outcomes were put beyond reach of Third World armies, first by the Gatling gun, introduced in the 1880s, and then by the Maxim, the first fully automatic weapon (1884). These were used over and over against Zulus, Mahdists and Matabele and never failed.
A similar technological catch-up occurred in the 1950s when the Viet Minh managed to carry broken-down AA guns on bicycles down the Ho Chi Minh trail and then reassemble them at Dien Bien Phu, where they were more than a match for French air power – flimsy helicopters and old Second World War piston-engined planes. Within a few years, US jets, heavily armoured Chinooks and napalm had put that sort of success in pitched battle beyond the Vietnamese. But there is a recurrent tendency for ground soldiers to catch up. The latest instance is the high-tech weaponry belonging to Gaddafi that is now being bought up by Somali pirates, some of whom could probably sink a modern warship.