Published Jan 2012
Some 170 years ago, Britain sent a powerful army into Afghanistan to protect its national interests. It was catastrophically destroyed. This is the story of the first Anglo-Afghan war and the start of the ‘Great Game.’
The consequences of crossing the Indus once, to settle a government in Afghanistan, will be a perennial march into that country.’
The Duke of Wellington, 1838
‘There is nothing more to be dreaded or guarded against. in our endeavour to re-establish the Afghan monarchy than the overweening confidence with which Europeans are too often accustomed to regard the excellence of their own institutions and the anxiety that they display to introduce them in new and untried soils.’
Claude Ware, 1839
In 1838, the British government, convinced that its invaluable empire in India was threatened by Russia, Persia, and Afghan tribes ordered its Army of the Indus into Afghanistan to oust from power the independent-minded Afghan king Dost Mohammed and install in Kabul the unpopular puppet ruler Shah Shuja. Expecting a quick campaign, the British found themselves trapped by unforeseen circumstances; eventually the tribes united and the seemingly omnipotent army was slaughtered in 1842 as it desperately retreated through the mountain passes from Kabul to Jalalabad. Only one Briton survived uncaptured.
Skilfully establishing the events leading to the invasion, and the historic interplay between countries in the region, Diana Preston vividly recounts the drama of the First Anglo-Afghan War, one of the opening salvos in the strategic rivalry between Britain and Russia for supremacy in Central Asia. As insightful about geography as she is about political and military miscalculation, Preston draws on rarely documented letters and diaries to bring alive long-lost characters – among many, Lord Auckland, the weak British governor-general in India; his imperious aide William Mcnaghten, the prescient adventurer-envoy Alexander Burnes, whose sage advice was steadfastly ignored; and Lady Florentia Sale, whose remarkable diary recalls the dramatic and tragic events she witnessed and her captivity among Afghan tribesmen, offering invaluable observations on decisions and opinions at the time.