Diana Preston’s The Dark Defile describes the disastrous occupation of Afghanistan by Britain from 1839 to 1842. This is a well-known story—depicted in grand nineteenth-century canvases (Remnants of an Army), 1960s comedies (Flashman), and a flurry of books with Victorian titles, published or republished to coincide with our current Afghan mess: Signal Catastrophe, Crimson Snow, The Last Man, Retreat and Retribution, Butcher and Bolt. Most of the books remind us that the British “Army of the Indus” swaggered into Kabul from India in 1839; that the general’s personal baggage had been loaded on 260 camels; that behind the lancers in their scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos trotted a pack of hounds, which had been led through the arid horrors of the Bolan Pass in order to hunt foxes in the Hindu Kush; and that the Afghans were soon watching ice-skating and giving advice to British women on their geraniums.
The British had invaded to replace the Afghan king, because they felt he was becoming too close to the Russians, and that Afghanistan could have been used by Russia to threaten British India. By November 1841, Sir Alexander Burnes, the British political official responsible for Kabul, congratulated his superior, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, on the perfect tranquility of the country. A day later, Burnes was hacked down in the flames of his burning mansion; a week later, the British garrison was under siege; on December 23 Macnaghten’s mutilated corpse was hung from a butcher’s hook in the bazaar; and on January 6 the British army began its retreat.
Some 15,000 soldiers and camp followers marched out of their compound through the snow, heading for the British garrison at Jalalabad. Some died of exposure, others were taken hostage or escaped, but most were killed. Five thousand men, women, and children died as they struggled through a five-mile gully outside of Kabul, picked off by muskets or cut down with swords. On January 13, sentries looking for the Army of the Indus saw a single wounded man moving across the plain. Dr. William Brydon was what remained of the Army of the Indus.
This “signal catastrophe” is illuminated by an astonishing range of contemporary sources, far more than exist for any classical or medieval conflict, and indeed for many more recent campaigns. You can read Colin Mackenzie’s description of a naked Indian baby, wide-eyed and abandoned on the snow-plain, at the beginning of the retreat, and you can still admire Mackenzie’s full-length portrait in the British National Army Museum (he has curled mustaches and is wearing the robes of a Persian prince). You can read the diary of Lady Sale, whose tough, unblinking account of the retreat, written on tattered sheaves of cheap paper, with her own deletions to conceal stories of cannibalism, survives in the British Library. And in family collections and regimental museums …