Prisoners of the Afghans

Royal Engineers confer with a local villager. Op Moshtarak, 2010.

There is a painful episode in the Afghan war, which perhaps can be introduced in no place more fitly than in this. Whilst the prisoners, who surrendered themselves on the march between Caubul and Jellalabad, were suffering such hardships in a rude and inhospitable country, British officers were enduring unparalleled sufferings in the dungeons of an Oosbeg tyrant, far beyond the snowy mountains of the Hindoo-Koosh.

They had not proceeded many miles, when two or three horsemen galloped up, and the party of captives were suddenly ordered to halt. Tidings had come, it was said, to the effect that Pollock had been beaten back in the Khybur Pass, with the loss of his guns, his treasure, and half his force. Confident of the truth of this atrocious story, the Afghans of the guard broke out into loud exultation, and the English officers, reluctant as they were to believe it, were overborne at last by the confidence of their escort and compelled to credit the distressing news.

False as was the report, it was not ineffective. The prisoners were carried back to Budeeabad. With heavy hearts and sad countenances they returned to their old prison-house, thinking of the new disasters which had overtaken their unhappy country. But their hearts were soon re-animated, and their faces soon brightened up, by the news which greeted them at Budeeabad. Pollock had not been beaten back; but had forced the Khybur Pass, and was marching triumphantly upon Jellalabad. Again, therefore, the captive party were ordered to resume their interrupted march; and on the following morning again they started.

Proceeding for about ten miles, “through a bleak and barren country,” they came upon a patch of cultivated ground—which smiled up in the faces of the prisoners like an oasis in the desert. Crossing the river, they overtook Akbar Khan, sitting in a palanquin, his arm in a sling, looking pale, haggard, and dejected, as one whose fortunes were not on the ascendant. They saluted the Sirdar, passed on, and halted at a short distance from him. The bivouac was a comfortless one. Strictly guarded and insufficiently sheltered, they passed the night in dreary discomfort. Rain fell, and under the scanty tents there was not room for the bedding of the captives.

The next day was one of equal misery—there was scarcely any food either for man or beast. On the morning of the 13th a distressing rumour was current among them. It was said that the married families were to be carried off in one direction, and the other captives in another. The scarcity was so great—it was so difficult to subsist them all on one spot—that it was necessary to divide the party. This was not to be submitted to without an effort to obtain the rescision of the obnoxious order. Lawrence went to the Sirdar, and implored him to suffer them all to remain together, and to share the same fate. The Sirdar relented; and they all resumed their march together.

Their route lay over barren hills and through narrow stoney valleys. Every now and then little patches of cultivation sparkled up in the arid waste. There was little or no food to be obtained. A few almonds and raisins, or other dried fruits, sufficed to appease the hunger of the captives, whilst their horses were reduced to skeletons. The heat was intense. The burning sun scorched the faces of the European travellers, and peeled off the white skin. The journey was a long and painful one, up a steep ascent almost along the whole line of march.

A Soldier from 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment (2 PARA), observes from a compound roof as soldiers from the Improvised Explosive Task Force, clear the streets of ghost town Char Coucha. Afghanistan, 2011.

The prisoners knew not whither they were going; and it seemed that Akbar Khan did not know where to take them. Some of the captives were suffering severely. The bad roads and the vicissitudes of the climate, for heavy rains followed the parching sun, tried them as in a furnace. General Elphinstone was dying. Lady Macnaghten and Lady Sale were sick. When Akbar Khan was made aware of the latter fact, he took compassion on the English ladies. He was still weak, and suffering from the effects of his wound; but he gave up the palanquin, or litter in which he had been carried, for their use; and rode on horseback to the end of the march.

This was on the 19th of April. On the evening of that day the prisoners reached Tezeen, and were conducted to a fort belonging to a petty Ghilzye chief, in which were all the wives and women of Mahomed Shah Khan. There they remained, poorly accommodated and scantily fed, until the 22nd, when, with the exception of General Elphinstone and two or three other invalids, they were all carried off in the direction of the hills, up a gradual ascent of many thousands of feet, to a place called Zanda. There they halted for some weeks, and in the meanwhile Captain Mackenzie was despatched in disguise to Pollock’s camp at Jellalabad; and General Elphinstone died.

By his fellow captives his dissolution had long been anticipated, and was now hardly deplored. Death brought him a merciful release from an accumulation of mortal sufferings. Incessant pain of body and anguish of mind had long been his portion. He felt acutely the humiliating position into which it had pleased Providence to cast him, and neither hoped nor wished to live to face his countrymen in the cantonments of Hindostan, or in the streets of that great western metropolis which he ought never to have quitted. They who watched beside the poor old man, during the painful close of his life, bear testimony, in touching language, to the Christian fortitude with which he bore his sufferings, and the Christian charity with which he spoke of others, under all the burdens which pressed upon him.

The hardships to which he had been subjected on the march from one prison-house to another had, perhaps, accelerated the crisis which was hanging over him; but he had long been passing away to his rest, and they, who loved him most, scarcely desired to arrest the progress of the maladies which were so surely destroying him. He left on record a statement of all the circumstances of our disasters—a statement which I have freely quoted in a preceding part of my narrative—but even with this statement in his hand, he could not have faced his countrymen without bringing down upon himself a verdict of condemnation. After all that has been written of his deficiencies at Caubul, it may seem a startling inconsistency to say that he was a brave and high-minded gentleman.

He was so esteemed before, in an evil hour for his own and his country’s reputation, he was ordered to carry his infirmities across the Indus; and in spite of all the humiliating circumstances of our discomfiture at Caubul, posterity may so esteem him. Not upon him, but upon those who are responsible for his appointment to high military command at such a time and in such a place—first, upon those who sent him to India; secondly, and chiefly, upon those who sent him to Afghanistan—must we fix the shame of this great miscarriage.

Adapted from History of the War in Afghanistan, Volume III, by Sir John William Kaye (1874). Photographs courtesy of Resolute Support Media and Defence Images. Published under a Creative Commons license.