First Afghan War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The British invaded Afghanistan in order to prevent it from falling under the control of Russia. The military and diplomatic humiliation suffered by Great Britain in this First Afghan War was an incident in the “Great Game,” the complex, mostly clandestine and conspiratorial, ninety-year struggle between Russia and Britain for control of South Asia.

Summary of Event

In 1804, Russia began a policy of expansion southward and eastward into Asia. Other European powers were consolidating their Asian holdings at the same time. By 1830, Czar Nicholas I had become fearful that British expansion northward and westward from India would threaten his new borders. Russia and Great Britain, then the two greatest world powers, began to send spies among the indigenous peoples of South Asia. Each nation intended to learn and thwart the intentions of the other in the region. There is strong evidence but no proof that Russian secret agents provoked the unrest that led to the two Afghan wars of 1839-1842 and 1878-1880, the two Anglo-Sikh wars of 1845-1846 and 1848-1849, and the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858). Afghan War, First (1839-1842) British Empire;and Afghanistan[Afghanistan] Burnes, Sir Alexander Dōst Moḥammad Khān Elphinstone, William Macnaghten, Sir William Hay Moḥammad Akbar Khān [kw]First Afghan War (1839-1842) [kw]Afghan War, First (1839-1842) [kw]War, First Afghan (1839-1842) Afghan War, First (1839-1842) British Empire;and Afghanistan[Afghanistan] Burnes, Sir Alexander Dōst Moḥammad Khān Elphinstone, William Macnaghten, Sir William Hay Moḥammad Akbar Khān [g]Afghanistan;1839-1842: First Afghan War[2080] [g]India;1839-1842: First Afghan War[2080] [g]British Empire;1839-1842: First Afghan War[2080] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1839-1842: First Afghan War[2080] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;1839-1842: First Afghan War[2080] Avitabile, Paolo di Nicholas I Nicholas I [p]Nicholas I[Nicholas 01];and Afghan Wars[Afghan Wars] Auckland, earl of Ellenborough, earl of Shāh Shuja Vitkevitch, Yan

In 1838, the British came to suspect the popular emir of Afghanistan, Dōst Moḥammad Khān, of being too friendly with Russia. Specifically, they were worried that the emir sought Russian military assistance against Ranjit Singh Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), the ruler of the Sikhs in the Punjab and a loyal ally of the British. This British opinion, which may have been unfounded, was based on intelligence gathered in the wake of an awkward incident in 1837. Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, Rawlinson, Sir Henry Creswicke a British lieutenant on a diplomatic errand from Tehran, Iran, to Herāt, Afghanistan, happened upon a uniformed Russian company under Captain Yan Vitkevitch that was en route to Kabul. The two parties uneasily withdrew from each other.

Subsequently, the British regarded Vitkevitch as a spy sowing discord in Persia Persia , Afghanistan, and northwestern India and currying the favor of Dōst Moḥammad. Vitkevitch committed suicide when Russia disavowed him and informed Great Britain that his visit to Kabul had been unauthorized. However, Vitkevitch seems to have been partially successful at inciting anti-British feeling in Afghanistan.

Besides Afghanistan and the Punjab Punjab , British India’s northwestern buffer against invaders and foreign influence consisted of the realm of Paolo di Avitabile. Avitabile, Paolo di An Italian soldier of fortune, Avitabile ruled Peshawar for the British from 1835 to 1843, keeping peace between the Pathans in Afghanistan and the Sikhs in the Punjab. Avitabile’s control of Peshawar added to the security of British interests between Lahore and Calcutta. Even with this modicum of security, the situation for British India was tenuous at best. To avoid further destabilizing the northwestern frontier, Britain plotted to depose Dōst Moḥammad and replace him with Shāh Shuja, Shāh Shuja who was known to prefer the British to the Russians, thus relieving Afghan pressure on Peshawar.

The earl of Auckland Auckland, earl of dispatched the Army of the Indus, comprising fifteen thousand British and Indian troops, to invade Afghanistan in early 1839. Sir Alexander Burnes, the British envoy to Kabul since 1836, bribed key local leaders to allow the Army of the Indus to enter Afghanistan through the Bolan Pass. Burnes understood Afghanistan well, objected to the overthrow of Dōst Moḥammad, and accurately foresaw the tragic consequences of this folly. He was a skillful diplomat and might have been more successful if he had not been placed under the command of Sir William Hay Macnaghten, the arrogant, ignorant, and tactless new British envoy to Kabul, who arrived with the army in July, 1839, just after Dōst Moḥammad fled the capital. In November, 1840, Dōst Moḥammad surrendered to Macnaghten and was exiled to India.

The majority of the Afghans supported Dōst Moḥammad and unfairly blamed Burnes instead of Auckland and Macnaghten for the British invasion. Burnes continued his policy of bribing and appeasement, but the situation rapidly deteriorated, even as Macnaghten reported to Auckland that all was well in Kabul and that Shāh Shuja Shāh Shuja was beloved of his people. In April, 1841, the misinformed Auckland appointed General William Elphinstone to assume command of the Army of the Indus. Elphinstone was a senile and indecisive veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and had not seen action since Waterloo in 1815, but he was a crony of Auckland.

In October, 1841, Macnaghten and his superiors, believing that Afghanistan was firmly under British control, ordered Burnes to reduce the bribes and subsidies to Afghans. Burnes was distressed at this prospect but had to comply. The largest and most powerful Afghan tribe, the Ghilzai, immediately closed the Khyber Pass, effectively imprisoning the British in Kabul. Macnaghten ordered a brigade under General Robert Sale to clear the pass as far as Jalālābād. On November 2, 1841, a mob in Kabul murdered Burnes.

The Afghans grew bolder as they gradually recognized the helplessness and desperation of the British in Kabul. Moḥammad Akbar Khān, Dōst Moḥammad’s son, entered the city and arranged an elaborate plot to entrap Macnaghten. On December 23, Akbar and his men caught Macnaghten double-crossing tribal leaders; in an act of summary judgment, they hacked him to death and dismembered his body. Akbar then ordered Elphinstone out of Afghanistan. The only way out was through the Khyber Pass.

Elphinstone surrendered 130 hostages and the entire British treasury in Kabul to Akbar. On January 6, 1842, forty-five hundred British troops and ten thousand camp followers began the trek to the Khyber Pass in bitter cold. Raids from the hills were frequent, deadly, and unchallenged. Elphinstone, completely demoralized, was incompetent to respond as a soldier should in such a crisis and allowed nearly all his men to be massacred during the retreat. His acquiescence to Akbar at every turn merely encouraged the Afghans to treat more brutally a British army they perceived as weak. Snipers high above the trail picked off the once-proud Army of the Indus one by one. Only Dr. William Brydon survived to reach safety in Jalālābād on January 13.

The earl of Ellenborough Ellenborough, earl of replaced Auckland Auckland, earl of as governor-general in March, 1842. Dōst Moḥammad returned to power in April. Ellenborough sent British troops, the so-called Army of Retribution, into Afghanistan to burn and punish, but mainly to try to salvage Britain’s reputation as a tough nation. By September, the British flag was again flying in Kabul, but Ellenborough wisely allowed Dōst Moḥammad to remain emir.


The British campaign in Afghanistan was a failure. Forced to retreat to southeast of the Khyber Pass, the British lost their buffer zone between India and Russia. They were concerned to restore security quickly along their northwestern frontier, so they regrouped and fought the two Anglo-Sikh Wars to solidify their hold on the Punjab Punjab . They also learned valuable lessons about fighting in Afghanistan. These lessons would help them win the Second Afghan War. After installing a pro-British government in Kabul in the wake of that conflict, the British army would withdraw voluntarily in April, 1881.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edwardes, Michael. Playing the Great Game: A Victorian Cold War. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1975. Explains how geography and exploration contributed to the political and military intrigues between Russia and Britain during the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fraser, George MacDonald. Flashman. New York: World, 1969. Although a work of fiction, this book describes the First Afghan War more accurately, vividly, and thoroughly than most of the nonfiction accounts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. New York: Kodansha International, 1994. A standard work with an excellent bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, Lawrence. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997. The full story of British adventurism on the subcontinent from 1740 to 1947.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khan, Munawwar. Anglo-Afghan Relations, 1798-1878: A Chapter in the Great Game in Central Asia. Khyber Bazar-Peshawar: University Book Agency, 1963. An Afghan perspective on British military and diplomatic incursions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyer, Karl Ernest, and Shareen Blair Brysac. Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999. Readable and lucid account of Russian interests in Central Asia and Russia’s conflicts first with Britain and later with the United States in Afghanistan, Tibet, and China. Covers intrigues from the Napoleonic era through the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1989.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Ballance, Edgar. Afghan Wars, 1839-1992: What Britain Gave Up and the Soviet Union Lost. New York: Brassey’s, 1993. Analyzes the British experience in Afghanistan as a precursor to the Soviet occupation of 1979-1989.

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Nicholas I; Ranjit Singh. Afghan War, First (1839-1842) British Empire;and Afghanistan[Afghanistan] Burnes, Sir Alexander Dōst Moḥammad Khān Elphinstone, William Macnaghten, Sir William Hay Moḥammad Akbar Khān

Categories: History