First Afghan War 1839-42

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The first Afghan war was an early round in the gathering ‘Great Game’. The struggle for power and influence on India’s northern frontiers between Britain and Russia, with the lawless mountainous country of Afghanistan as the battleground, and nearby Persia [Iran] holding the ring. Fearing that the Afghan ruler, Dost Mohamed, was in league with Russia and Persia to undermine British rule in India, the new British Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland organised an expedition to overthrow Dost and replace him with Shah Shuja, a pro-British rival in April 1839. The British took Quetta and Kandahar without resistance. The fort of Ghazni however, held by Dost’s son Hyder Khan, was a tougher nut, storming it cost the British 200 casualties. Kabul fell next, on August 7th, but the Afghans did not appreciate their new rulers. British officials and Shah Shuji were murdered, discontent grew, and fearing they would be cut off without hope of relief the British decided to retreat. 16,000 men, women and children under Lord Elphinstone set off from Kabul, but continuous attacks, bitter weather, and sheer exhaustion reduced the force to a handful, then a remnant, then a single survivor (though some hostages taken by the Afghans were later ransomed) called Dr William Brydon, a military physician. The retreat from Kabul was the greatest British military disaster of the early 19th century.

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