Inhabited by some of the most warlike peoples on the face of the earth, the country has always been glowering, secretive and veiled in intrigue, little known to Europeans except by disrepute. The Afghans think trade an ignoble occupation and leave it to foreigners; their general character is at once savagely independent and desperately unpredictable. They can be lively, humorous, courageous and warm-hearted but can also be bigoted, sly and murderous. Split into tribal divisions subdivided into clans, they fight incessantly among themselves and are almost impossible to govern.
We British have known them longer and better than most, and at times have wished, on the whole, to preserve the independence of the nation, but when it became apparent that foreign influences at work there posed a threat to our interests, the decision was taken to invade, while proclaiming that "once the independence and integrity of Afghanistan is established, the British Army will be withdrawn".
The principal invasion force consisted of 9,000 troops, with 6,000 more not under our direct command. Progress was slow and laborious, for behind them there followed 38,000 camp followers. The army was to live off the country but nevertheless took with them thirty days' rations of grain and enough sheep and cattle for ten weeks. Every platoon of every regiment had its water-carriers, its sadlers, its blacksmiths, its cobblers, its tailors, its laundrymen, and there were the men who polished brasses, and the men who put up tents, and the cooks, the orderlies, the stable-boys—together with all their wives, all their children and often aunts, uncles or grandparents—and troops of prostitutes from half India, with fiddlers, dancing-girls, fortune-tellers, wood-gatherers—with herdsmen to look after the cattle, sheep and goats, and butchers to slaughter them. There were carts and wagons by the thousand, palanquins, drays, chargers, ponies and dogs.
All this great multitude stumbled away to war, each corps with its band playing, a regiment of Queen's cavalry, nine regiments of infantry, engineers and gunners. A mighty dust hung in the air behind them, as a sign that the British were coming.
As a military operation the invasion was a qualified success. Organized opposition seemed to be at an end, and on August 6th, 1839, the panoply of British imperial power entered Kabul. At their head was the king, Shah Shuja, whom the British had restored to his throne; he was a splendid sight, scintillating with jewellery, and rode a white charger accoutred in gold, but was greeted with sullen silence by the Kabulis, who didn't much like him.
Much of the army was now sent back to India, leaving a division of infantry, a regiment of cavalry and an artillery battery. The British settled in, built a racetrack, organised amateur dramatics and persuaded a few Kabulis to take up cricket. However, in 1841 a riot became a rising and the head of Her Majesty's Envoy and Plenipotentiary was paraded through the capital while the rest of his corpse was suspended from a meathook in the great bazaar. Despite this discourteous behaviour, General Elphinstone, who was in command in spite of being debilitated by a wound in his buttock, negotiated an agreement with the insurgents, who promised to see the army safely through the passes to Jalalabad on the Indian frontier. No-one really believed them.
On January 6th, 1842, the army began its retreat, the most terrible in the history of British arms, and some 16,500 souls struggled out of their cantonment. The retreat lasted just a week; by January 13th all had died or been slaughtered except for one army surgeon who reached Jalalabad hotly pursued by sabre-waving Afghans.
So the first of Queen Victoria's imperial wars came to its terrible end. The British returned to Kabul within the year, blew up the great bazaar as a reminder of their displeasure and subdued the Afghans until the next Anglo-Afghan war forty years later. Shah Suja was soon murdered, and Afghanistan provided perennial strife for the rest of the century.
The above was adapted from an account by the essayist Jan Morris in her trilogy Pax Britannica. She concludes:
As for the retreat from Kabul, though largely forgotten in Britain it is vividly remembered in Afghanistan. When in 1960 I followed the army's route from Kabul to Jalalabad with an Afghan companion, we found many people ready to point out the sites of the tragedy, and recall family exploits. I asked one patriarch what would happen now if a foreign army invaded the country. "The same", he hissed, between the last of his teeth.