The British Empire Library

Dust of Glory: The First Anglo-Afghan War 1839-1842, its Causes and Course

by Bill Whitbum

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
I suppose everyone knows the outline of this dreadful story: a bid by the British to restore a claimant to the throne of Afghanistan. A huge army invades and successfully accomplishes this mission, but the promised uprising in favour of the new king never materialises. Instead the British forces are harried at every tum, their howitzers rarely useful in the mountain passes, whereas the Afghan rifles (jezails) have a longer range than the British Brown Besses, especially when fired into a pass from above. The British forces become fatally fragmented and in a disorganised attempt to leave many are laughtered.

This is a big book - a 1kg paperback of about 240,000 words. It starts in a leisurely way with a history of the Hindu Kush (a short walk if you like) and the battles of Alexander the Great and others in antiquity, followed by two chapters on the history of Afghanistan in the 50 years before the War (fratricidal warfare with everyone taking it in turns to be hewn in pieces like Agag, or at least blinded, by a usurping cousin). After this another chapter about Britain in the 1830s with a good deal about the Great Reform Bill. By now we are on page 76 and at last we can greet the new Governor General, Lord Auckland, as he arrives in India. But there are still three more chapters before we can begin the invasion of Afghanistan. I am not suggesting these chapters are unnecessary, but after all we have been through readers may be tempted to skip them.

Thereafter the narrative is a blow-by-blow account of the greatest defeat of British troops in the 19th century- a dismal story of muddled objectives, naivety, optimistic interpretation of military intelligence, mission creep, people promoted beyond their capabilities, unresolved conflicts between political officers and soldiers, and sheer incompetence. There are some 40 books of first-hand accounts - many not published till many years after the events - presumably because the memory was too raw. Mr Whitbum has read them all and quotes extensively from them. However he seems to have made more limited use of the India Office Records.

His conclusions are not especially startling but in general this is a workmanlike narrative. The threat from Russia and anxieties about the Sikh empire are well described. The nightmare logistics of moving a large army with sometimes thousands of camels and a huge body of camp followers are also vividly set out. The tortuous negotiations with the Afghans and the sufferings of troops, civilians and others from Afghan attacks, hunger and thirst, and an inclement climate are painted in bleak colours.

And now the niggles: the book is marred by some defects. Mr Whitburn has a liking for slang: 'booted out' , people 'hightailing it', 'put the kybosh on', etc. Will such phrases always be intelligible in 50 years' time? Mercifully he gradually loses his appetite for these irritating expressions as the book progresses. This is just as well when dealing with the more harrowing later chapters.

His maps are a mixed lot. One particularly opaque one on p20 covers western China. Various parts of the country are marked with Roman numbers I to IV, but neither the map generally nor the numbered areas are ever mentioned in the book. The legends on many maps (eg pp230, 242) are minutely small even though the map has plenty of blank space for such text. The battle maps have lines to show the movements of the different combatants but often no identification of who these represent ( eg p252).

By contrast the illustrations are mostly well chosen and well presented, but we have no idea where they come from, nor whether the captions are Mr Whitburn's or those of the original author. The index is frankly a disgrace. At least three quarters of people mentioned in the text are missing. All the numerous Singhs in the Sikh royal family are omitted except Maharaja Ranjit Singh. There is no index of regiments. No index entries are subdivided in any way. Though Governors General Wellesley, Bentinck, Auckland and Ellenborough (but not Hardinge) have their own entries, there is also an amorphous lump of about 70 further references under nothing more helpful than 'Governor General' . After all this no one should be surprised to find that the book is littered with spelling mistakes - Lady Sale is called Florentina instead of Florentia (an overactive spell-check, I think). Some if not all of these crimes should be laid to the charge of Mr Whitburn's publisher. For those who can ignore these irritations, Mr Whitburn has provided a solid if diffuse analysis of the sorry tale.

British Empire Book
Bill Whitbum
Helion & Company
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2022 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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