It was all about the Russians

David French

  • 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.

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