Akbar’s Trap: The Khyber Pass Massacre

In the mid-19th century, the Great Game was played out between the Russian and British Empires, primarily for control of Asia. The two powers sought their own spheres of influence. The British, having control of India already, hoped to maintain control over the nearby Afghanistan.

In 1839, the Afghan king was Dost Mohammad Khan, long friendly with to the British and the influential East India Company. British agents got wind of Russian agents who may have met with Dost, and feared that he may soon side with Russia. A plan was developed to depose Dost and elevate the formerly deposed Emir Shah Shujah Durrani.

A large British garrison was stationed in Jalalabad just 90 miles east of the capital of Kabul, but the only route was through a high and narrow mountain pass. Thus, the large British army gathered to take Kabul and guide the transition took a long way South around the mountains and had an easy time of placing Shah Durrani on the throne.

Once the mission was completed, a modest garrison of about 5,000 soldiers stayed. The occupation was, at first, easy and peaceful with no sense of danger or unrest, especially as the outlying tribes received direct continuous bribes for their cooperation. Many family members were brought down, and comforts of home such as salmon were brought, and lively cricket matches organized.

The British garrison camp just outside Kabul, notice the rolling hills surrounding the camp.
The British garrison camp just outside Kabul, notice the rolling hills surrounding the camp.

This easy living along with the casual overthrow of their beloved ruler Dost irritated the native Afghanis and resentment began to grow. A young, charismatic leader Akbar Khan, son of the deposed Dost, began to urge rebellion.

He was helped greatly by the treatment of the Kabul citizens by the British, who looked down on them and were notorious for seeking sexual pleasures from the Afghani women. The outlying warlike tribes got the push they needed when the British decided to drastically cut the bribes paid for holding the peace.

Prince Akbar was in his early twenties when leading the rebel forces.
Prince Akbar was in his early twenties when leading the rebel forces.

In November of 1841 Afghan rebels stormed the house of Alexander Burnes, an officer who actually disagreed with many of the political actions of the British, but did have a reputation for stealing married Afghani women. Burnes and his guards were stabbed to death, and the house set aflame. The smoke could be seen from the British camp outside the city, but the newly appointed commander, Lord Elphinstone, was so indecisive that he did absolutely nothing until nightfall. The rebels grew much bolder after suffering no repercussions and more troops rallied to the cause and began to surround the British camp.

Because the earlier occupation seemed to be such an easy assignment, the British camp was one of convenience, not defense. It was just outside of the city on lowland with hills around that provided easy sniper fire into the camp. Almost all of the food stores were located in buildings outside of the camp walls and these were quickly seized. An attempt to break out of the camp by the British was met with cannon and musket fire from the hills and forced the British back into their camp seeking the best cover they could find.

The British diplomat to the Afghanis, William Macnaghten, sought a meeting with Akbar Khan to negotiate. Macnaghten and his officers were immediately seized when they came to Akbar’s camp. Macnaghten was well known to be a supporter of the deposition of Akbar’s father and also sought secret meetings at the same time with other tribes presumably to overthrow the rebellion.

Akbar was quick to send a message by personally executing Macnaghten, leaving the sole leadership of the British in the hands of the aging, sick and indecisive Lord Elphinstone.

Lord Elphinstone was old, sick and indecesive but given command of all the British forces.
Lord Elphinstone was old, sick and indecisive but given command of all the British forces.

Despite the murder of the last representative to meet with Akbar, Elphinstone met with Akbar and an agreement was made for safe passage through the Khyber passes to Jalalabad in the east, in exchange for all cannons and many of the newer muskets.

Safety being guaranteed to the sick and wounded, Elphinstone left them behind and set out to the pass. Soon the British looked back and saw smoke from their camp and it was all but a certainty that those left behind were killed, especially when there was no sign of Akbar’s promised troops to escort the troops through the pass. With limited food and their best weapons handed to the enemy, the British struggled forward towards the pass and the ninety-mile road to safety.

The Afghan tribesmen may not have been professionals, but they knew the lands and had no shortage of quality weapons.
The Afghan tribesmen may not have been professionals, but they knew the lands well and had no shortage of quality weapons.

The British had a little less than 5,000 soldiers, with most being Indian infantry, but the number of family and other camp followers brought the number up to around 16,000. Afghan numbers a difficult to tell with the rebellious and tribal organization, but the rebellion had a great deal of support, so numbers between 20-30,000 are possible. The first day the group got only five miles and had to survive the freezing night temperatures keeping in mind that any fires would give snipers a good view of potential victims.

Once again Akbar sent a message to Elphinstone to exchange British hostages for ceasing hostilities and allowing for safe passage, and again Elphinstone complied only to lose men and have hostilities continue. The delay of negotiations simply allowed Akbar to set an even better trap further up the road where the mountain pass narrowed. Entrenched snipers shot from the safety of cliffs as the British struggled to the top of a pass only to face a raging blizzard. This day likely caused the most casualties and the next day Elphinstone voluntarily surrendered the civilians thinking they would have better chances at survival as prisoners than they would subjected to the elements.

After another meeting request, Elphinstone went himself, and Akbar simply captured him and his officers leaving the 1,000 or so remaining soldiers leaderless with roughly seventy miles to go. The remaining troops attempted a night march but ran into a wall of wood and formidable thorn bushes. A majority of the 1,000 soldiers were killed trying to scale this wall or dispatched by soldiers on the other side. The survivors who somehow made it past numbered in the dozens.

Last stand of several British. when the Afghans pleaded to them that they would spare their lives if the surrendered an officer supposedly replied "not bloody likely"
Last stand of several British. when the Afghans pleaded to them that they would spare their lives if the surrendered an officer supposedly replied “not bloody likely”

These survivors gathered the horses they could and galloped as fast as they could but met multiple pockets of resistance. A group of twenty made a last stand on a hill refusing to surrender and put up a fierce fight before falling. A few made it to a small town and sought safety, but most were killed on arrival and the rest were shot as they attempted to flee on their horses.

A week after the British set off on their journey to Jalalabad, one lone soldier, Dr. William Brydon rode to the gates of the city with near fatal wounds and a soon dead horse. Brydon had several slash and stab wounds and had part of his skull sheared off by a sword blow. His last battle with the Afghans occurred within sight of the city, and a rescue party had to be sent out to save him. When asked where the army was, Brydon replied, “I am the army.”

Ultimately several hundred, likely thousands of civilians and officers survived as captives, but Dr. Brydon was the only active soldier to complete the ninety-mile march.

The entire campaign, starting from the deposition of Dost Mohammed was a series of terrible planning and horrible decisions, or no decisions at all. Dost Mohammed had some issues with the British, but after regaining his rule, he would eventually be a solid ally of the British. The modest garrison and poor camp design forced a desperate escape. Deep in foreign territory, the retreat was hopeless, and the gullible Elphinstone grasped at every hope of negotiation rather than accept the hard road and pushing with purpose.

The British eventually led a successful punitive campaign, and many prisoners were regained. Dr. Brydon continued to serve with distinction and lived a long life after the incident, and died peacefully in his home at 61.

By William McLaughlin for War History Online

William Mclaughlin

William Mclaughlin is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE