Last night I had a pleasant evening watching four of the hour-long segments of Michael Palin's documentary Himalaya (BBC, 2004). He begins the journey and the narrative quite logically at the Khyber Pass, noting that many of the worlds greatest armies have followed this route, since it is the only passage through the mountain chain. He mentions Alexander the Great, Darius the Persian, and Tamerlane the Great. Then this...
"And in 1842 the lone survivor of the British Army's attempt to pacify Afghanistan came staggering up this road to announce the annihilation of 17,000 of his comrades..."That got my attention, since it referred to an event not covered in any of my (few) history courses. Searched the web today, and found the First Anglo-Afghan War, and then the catastrophe under the heading Massacre of Elphinstone's Army. Details at the link, but these excerpts give the flavor:
The remnants dragged on and made a last stand near the village of Gandamack on 13 January. The force was down to fewer than forty men and almost out of food and ammunition. They were surrounded on a hillock and when a surrender was offered by the Afghans, one British sergeant gave the famous answer "Not bloody likely!" All but two were slain.The winter massacre is eerily reminiscent of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Blogged today because I continue to wonder about the strategic relevance of Afghanistan for the United States, especially in view of Obama's insistence that he will accelerate the war there. I can't believe the claims that our presence there is for the purpose of hunting bin Laden. It has to be oil-related or for access to Iran and Pakistan. It's hard to believe that it will end soon (or well).
Only one soldier managed to reach Jalalabad. On January 13 William Brydon, an assistant surgeon, rode through the gate on his exhausted horse. Part of his skull was sheared off by a sword. An Afghan shepherd had granted him refuge and, when the shooting was over, put him on his horse. It is said that he was asked upon arrival what happened to the army, and answered "I am the army."
More on that some other time. Just the history lesson for today.
The paintings above: Remnants of an Army and Last Stand