December in Kabul, 1841

In December 1841, the British Envoy in Kabul, Sir William McNaghten, wrote to his superior, Lord Auckland, in these terms, as the British occupying force prepared to leave Afghanistan. ‘We shall part with the Afghans as friends, and I feel satisfied that any government which may be established hereafter [in Kabul] will always be disposed to cultivate a good understanding with us.’ Two weeks later, Sir William was beheaded by an Afghani jihadist leader. His body was dismembered, dragged around the city and finally strung up, along with his head and top hat. His deputy, Sir Alexander Burnes, had met a similar fate a little earlier although, in his case, the situation was complicated by his cuckolding of another Afghani leader.

The remaining British left Kabul in the depths of winter. Of 16 000 soldiers, mostly Indian sepoys, and camp followers, including women and children, only one Briton and a few sepoys reached Jalalabad. The rest were killed by the Afghanis, froze to death or were sold into slavery in Central Asia. These events, known as the First Afghan War, have been described as ‘the worst British military disaster until the fall of Singapore, exactly a century later’.

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